Is This a Startup?

Affirmative

By Sean Augustine-Obi

 

I mean, what else would it be?

 

With the thriving competition for our hearts and stomachs in Morningside (Has anyone tried the lox at John Jay?), we needed innovation. We needed something that would disrupt conventional notions of eating without disrupting our digestive tracts.

 

We needed a salad restaurant.

 

Sweetgreen is more than just a poor man’s Chop’t or a vaguely celestial version of Milano’s salad bar—it’s a revolution in the way we eat. Nine years ago, our cofounders began with little more than a chopping board and a dream. They conceptualized the most exalted of mankind’s dishes, the salad, and used their Georgetown BBAs to build a well-oiled, mean, green machine.

 

Forget about the surf shop aesthetic at Dig Inn—Sweetgreen’s ambience shows our company’s vision in creating the salad of the future. Between the sleek, chrome spray painted exterior and the glassy interior, you can see how our design takes a page out of Apple’s playbook. And those quirky salad names? Creative ran tens of thousands of dollars beta testing them with focus groups to determine which ones had the most market appeal. Innovation don’t come cheap. Hence the $12 price tag.

 

Really, being a startup is the best of both worlds when it comes to cuisine. Our ingredients are fresh and locally sourced with the efficiency of the corporate supply chain. It’s nothing like the factoryprocessed, reheated slop they’d hawk on you at a chain restaurant. We have an app, so you don’t even need to talk to the person making your food. And just like any other startup, it’ll take years of gentrification before we open up shop in a low-income neighborhood.

 

But more than anything, startups bring a message of hope and renewal to a world filled with cynicism. Sure, this message might explicitly promote conspicuous consumption as a means of social change without tackling the real problem of factory farming or greenhouse gas emissions, but isn’t that spirit what American exceptionalism is all about? Forget cap and trade—the people want cucumber and Thai dressing! Sweetgreen’s commercial success shows that people at Columbia want food with purpose. It’s not enough just to have middling food or sentimental value to win with consumers ... unless you’re Deluxe. That’s why I applied to be their brand ambassador.

 

We’re in the middle of a pivot today towards a sharing economy, and for brand ambassadors like me, sometimes it means sharing our time and labor without being compensated in anything except in-store coupons. It’s an unfortunate side effect of the low overhead and high profit margins that keep those sweet angel investor dollars pouring in. But why protest capitalism’s inexorable subsumption of small businesses or student loans calcifying income inequality when you could chow down on an Avocobbo bowl?

 

Look, I know you’re just sitting through my spiel to get branded swag. Unlike Sweetgreen’s product, branded swag doesn’t just grow on trees. At least I didn’t hitch my horse to an E. coli-ridden wagon, like Chipotle’s rep. And I’m doing better than Dig Inn’s rep, who’s had to pick up a side hustle spamming Lyft invites on Facebook events. It’s rough for everyone out here. Guess I should’ve majored in CS.

 

Negative

By Ben Schneider

I f our city’s gradual Californication teaches us anything, it’s that looks can be deceiving. Just because we look healthy on Tinder doesn’t mean we don’t secretly have crabs! Just because there are like 12 surf shops on the Lower East Side doesn’t mean anyone in New York surfs. Just because we call it the sharing economy doesn’t mean we’re sharing anything. Except maybe crabs.

 

And just because its stores are dressed up like iOS 9 doesn’t mean Sweetgreen is a startup. 38 brick and mortar locations on both coasts, $95 million in venture capital—anyone with a subscription to Bloomberg Weekly can tell you that Sweetgreen is most definitely is not a startup. This is a company well on it’s way to market consolidation and an IPO. In fact, I’m offended that you would even associate Sweetgreen with the do-good optimism of the tech bubble. Sure, Sweetgreen has an app, but so does CCSC.

 

Last I checked, a startup was supposed to radically disrupt the status quo, to solve the world’s ills through the deux ex machina of business and technology. Sweetgreen is a goddamn salad bar. It serves uncooked saprophytes, albeit uncooked saprophytes dosed with a—heavy, please!—brew of Mark Bittman’s Soulcycle sweat, that luminous brain juice leaking from every cracked Fitbit screen, and the most scrumptious, self-serving rhetoric of the Obama era.

 

Don’t get me wrong, this sort of ideological dumpster diving is a noble pursuit, and a cute interpretation of “locally sourced,” but it’s nothing new. Over-priced salads and farm-to-table values have been around since the Stone Age—in tech years that is.

 

But maybe I’m wrong. Sitting over my biodegradable kale and quinoa bowl one evening, staring out blankly at Broadway, it occurred to that there is, in fact, something innovative about Sweetgreen. In a brilliant and kind of revolutionary move that further differentiates the company from self-righteous startups, Sweetgreen embraces their rhetoric, but with a winking irony that draws explicit attention to its own insincerity.

 

Soylent—bless its goopy heart—was way off the bat about the culinary desires wrought by post-modernity. At the end of the day, people don’t want to drink white goop with questionable nutritional value through a straw—if that were the case Uni Cafe never would have met its untimely demise. They don’t even want to feel good about how socially conscious they are. What Columbia students really want to do is opine about the impossibility of ethical consumption under late capitalism over Instagram-ready tableaus of $12 bowls of free-range chicken and locally sourced vegetables, while the service worker behind the counter whispers sweet nothings about sustainability.

 

It’s a beautiful joke. Laughing to the point of tears, customers buy salad after salad on the Sweetgreen app; the achievement of Green status returns the ability to donate one percent of their money to healthy food for underprivileged kids. Sweetgreen’s success rests on the fact that it’s so absurd and insincere as to be enchanting and fun. Its very existence is a protest against startups and their techno-utopian values. Even more fun than pretending to solve our social ills, is having a good laugh about it over an Earth Bowl.