The Centuries-Long Legacy Of Your Fancy $20 Lunch Salad

It’s one o’clock on a Thursday in Manhattan’s financial district, and Wall Street is out to lunch. Literally: This upwardly mobile workforce subset is snagging a midday meal, either to eat on site or take back to their desks, searching for something delicious and satisfying that will power them through the rest of the afternoon.
Small takeout shops sprinkle the winding streets. No doubt there are countless Seamless orders being delivered right under my nose. But the most impressive food queue exists in an unassuming storefront on actual Wall Street, behind a paper bag brown vestibule that leads into a bright space decorated with subway tile, rustic wood, and vegetables en plein air. At Sweetgreen, the line snakes around the ordering space twice, and well-heeled millennials pass the time by catching up on their Instagram feeds or gossiping with colleagues.
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Anyone familiar with a fast casual salad concept chain knows what comes next: You get to the counter, decide whether to order off the menu, or create a bespoke masterpiece. Next a friendly but hurried employee ushers you through your selection, adding ingredients one station at a time. A swirl of dressing, a quick stop at the register for add-ons and payment — cards only, please — and you’re on your way. You can stick around and partake in the act of self-care which is screen-free eating (if there are tables left, that is), but today I’m on the go.
Unlike with other chains, there’s no accessory carb that comes with your meal: What’s in the bowl is what you get. My salad, chosen from the seasonal menu, is called the “Rad Thai,” and only after I gobble the last shrimp do I take a look at the receipt stuck to the bottom of the plastic bowl. For this culinary experience, I have parted ways with $18.13. Not exactly a steal — but these days, pretty par for the fast-casual course. Still: How did a $20 salad become the new lunch normal?
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Illustration by Louisa Cannell
As both a side dish and main entree, salad has been evolving for centuries (though concept salad franchises are a recent food world creation). The word itself has Latin roots: ”sal,” meaning “salt,” became “salata,” i.e. “salted things” — like, for example, raw veggies dressed with oil, vinegar, herbs, and salt. The word turned up in France as “salade,” and later in English as “salad” or “sallet.” Depending on where and when you were, those veggies dishes might have been served pickled, fresh, or cooked. But the takeaway here is that salad is an O.G. in the food space, and dates back centuries upon centuries.
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Near the end of the 1800s, salad entered a different kind of heyday, one in which it literally took on a new form. That era in America brought the advent of “domestic science” — the study of household skills like cooking and sewing, bestowed almost exclusively on women. Advocates of this burgeoning field of study were obsessed with order, and piles of mixed greens were deemed disgracefully disorganized. The chaos had to be tamed, and the whip wound up being instant gelatin, which allowed the lady of the house to tidily preserve leftovers — and coax other ingredients into eye-pleasing formations — and then call it a salad.
Perhaps the epitome of this culinary culture moment is something called the Perfection Salad: a 1905 award-winning recipe containing celery, red pepper, and cabbage, nearly contained in aspic. (For the uninitiated, aspic is a savory, meat broth-based jelly, set in a mold.) According to the book Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century, by food historian and culture writer Laura Shapiro, the ability to make one of these molds was evidence of high social status. It meant that the cook had access to a refrigerator, a sign of wealth at the time.
Suddenly, veggies and greens started to float in Bundt-shaped aspic molds — the precursors to the 1960s Jello dessert salads, like ambrosia and pistachio fluff, available in Midwestern supermarkets today. Eventually, rigid molds started to fall out of food vogue, and salads began to relax into something more familiar to the construction we’re accustomed to today. There was the Chef’s salad, the Caesar salad, the Cobb salad; the Wedge; the Tuna Salad, the Taco Salad.
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Then came the rise of self-serve salad bars, including the first one, in Chicago, in the late 1930s, and the role they played in the so-called “beauty lunches” popularized by famous Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Helen Gurley Brown in her book The Single Girl’s Cookbook. And of course, now salads have risen to ubiquity in high-end grocery stores, home refrigerators, restaurants, and the fast-casual dining chains of today. Still, for much of their history, “[s]alads were perceived as ladies’ food,” Shapiro wrote, “reflecting the image of frailty attached to the women who made them.” And not just “ladies’ food,” but also “diet food”: unsatisfying and undesirable. But then, in the early 2000s, food culture shifted, and everything changed.
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If you went into a McDonald’s across America between 2000 and 2003, you might have noticed something on the menu that — at the time — didn’t quite fit in. It was the McShaker, which looked a lot like a McFlurry, except instead of ice cream and M&Ms, it contained limp romaine, a couple croutons, and some other veggies or protein. You’d squeeze a pack of dressing into the cup, clip the lid, and shake it up. McShaker salads were okay — nothing you'd crave or savor like a Big Mac. But they are still a notable part of fast food history, because they mark the beginning of large-scale franchises like McDonalds starting to flirt with a more “health-conscious” menu.
“There was a void in fast food salads,” says Bob Goldin of Pantellect, Inc., a food business consultancy in Chicago. “It was an open playing field.” McDonalds may have tried to make a mark on the space, but its core consumers weren’t really buying the home of the hamburger as the spot to get salad at that point, and the dearth of options made it easier to stake a claim in the space. Of today’s frontrunning franchises, Chopt was the first to come on the scene, in 2001; JustSalad and Tender Greens followed in 2006. Sweetgreen didn’t open the doors of its first location until 2007, but has since come out at the front of the pack. (Certainly, there are plenty of other fast-casual spots that sell salad and came first, including Fresh&Co and Pret-a-Manger, but their breadth of menu options puts them in a slightly different category.) Nowadays, Goldin sees fast-casual salad chains as still in the early stages, and the space as filling up — but by no means full.
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The health halo that comes with foods that are perceived as health conscious fits in perfectly with currently reigning philosophies about how we should eat — sustainably, macro-consciously, and if it’s at all possible, food that looks good on Instagram. Goldin pointed out that, over the last decade, concepts that emphasize “health, natural, and local” have become very powerful right now. “Health is a moving target,” he says. “But consumer perception around ‘fresh’ seems to be healthier.”
Customization has also been a key component of success here, which sets up the reason that spending around 20 bucks on a lunch salad isn’t something a lot of urbanites think twice about. “We want what we want, and we’re willing to pay for that,” Goldin says. Of course, another reason chains like Sweetgreen and Chopt have been so successful also has everything to do with that old real estate adage: location, location, location. Though the salad concept arena is still early in its development, with plenty of room for growth, the fact that they’ve thrived in dense metropolitan areas shouldn’t be a surprise. They’ve zeroed in on a their prime audience: health and socially conscious, on-the-go, upwardly mobile, urban dwelling millennials. They know exactly who they are selling to.
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Illustration by Louisa Cannell
There are also qualities of vice and virtue tied up in food, explains psychologist and neuroscientist Rachel Herz, PhD, who is also the author of Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science Behind Our Relationship With Food. “People feel like when they’re being good — for their environment, or even for themselves — it sort of licenses them in other respects,” she says. She told me about a study where researchers tracked people’s shopping patterns in grocery stores. The study found that after people put fruits and veggies in their carts (the “virtue” section), the next thing they went for was vice — the ice cream or snack aisle. It’s as if they were balancing the scale. Organic food, in particular, seems to have a major impact on our psyche, and the allowances we make for ourselves as a result of making that choice.
The phrase “you are what you eat” can be traced back to the 1820s, though in its original French form, it directly translates to “tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” But the notion that our choice of food reflects something about ourselves has never been as relevant as it is now, in an era where it’s normal to snap photos of whatever we’re about to eat and then share them with the world.
What Goldin did not say, but what I could not help but infer, is that when considering the success of health-conscious food chains, it’s worth thinking about the rise of the personal brand; we want what we want, as Goldin said; but also, we want to telegraph what we want to the world because of what it says about us personally. Choosing to patronize a chain like Sweetgreen or Tender Greens — with their sustainable, ethical, health-conscious philosophy, aspirational branding, and unassailable goodness — is like briefly being your best self. And that feeling is worth at least $20.
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