Medical News

The Sad Desk Salad Is Getting Sadder

Every day, the blogger Alex Lyons orders the same salad from the same New York City bodega and eats it in the same place: her desk. She eats it while working so that she can publish a story before “prime time”—the midday lunch window when her audience of office workers scrolls mindlessly on their computers while gobbling down their own salad. Lyons is the protagonist of Sad Desk Salad, the 2012 novel by Jessica Grose that gave a name to not just a type of meal but a common experience: attempting to simultaneously maximize both health and productivity because—and this is the sad part—there’s never enough time to devote to either.

The sad desk salad has become synonymous with people like Lyons: young, overworked white-collar professionals contemplating how salad can help them self-optimize. Chains such as Sweetgreen and Chopt have thrived in big coastal cities, slinging “guacamole greens” and “spicy Sonoma Caesars” in to-go bowls that can be picked up between meetings. The prices can creep toward $20, reinforcing their fancy reputation.

But fast salad has gone mainstream. Sweetgreen and similar salad chains have expanded out of city centers into the suburbs, where they are reaching a whole new population of hungry workers. Other salad joints are selling salad faster than ever—in some cases, at fast-food prices. Along the way, the sad desk salad has become even sadder.

Anything can make for a sad desk lunch, but there’s something unique about salads. Don’t get me wrong: They can be delicious. I have spent embarrassing amounts of money on sad desk salads, including one I picked at while writing this article. Yet unlike, say, a burrito or sushi, which at least feel like little indulgences, the main reason to eat a salad is because it’s nutritious. It’s fuel—not fun. Even when there isn’t time for a lunch break, there is always time for arugula.

[Read: Don’t believe the salad millionaire]

During the early pandemic, the sad desk salad seemed doomed. Workers sitting at a desk at home rather than in the office could fish out greens from the refrigerator crisper drawer instead of paying $16. Even if they wanted to, most of the locations were in downtown cores, not residential neighborhoods.

But the sad desk salad has not just returned—it’s thriving. Take Sweetgreen, maybe the most well-known purveyor. It bet that Americans would still want its salads no matter where they are working, and so far, that has paid off. The company has been expanding to the suburbs since at least 2020 and has been spreading ever since. In 2023, it opened stores in Milwaukee, Tampa, and Rhode Island; last week, when Sweetgreen reported that its revenue jumped 26 percent over the previous year, executives attributed that growth to expansion into smaller cities. Most of its locations are in the suburbs, and most of its future stores would be too.

Sweetgreen is not the only company to have made that gamble. Chopt previously announced that it would open 80 percent of its new stores in the suburbs; the Minnesota-based brand Crisp & Green is eyeing the fringes of midwestern cities. Salad has become so entrenched as a lunch option that even traditional fast-food giants such as Wendy’s and Dairy Queen have introduced salad bowls in recent years. Maybe the most novel of all is Salad and Go, an entirely drive-through chain that sells salads for less than $7. It opened a new store roughly every week last year, and now has more than 100 locations across Arizona, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Texas, with plans to expand to Southern California and the Southeast. Its CEO, Charlie Morrison, has positioned it as a cheap and convenient alternative to unhealthy options: a rival not to Sweetgreen, but to McDonald’s.

Indeed, sad desk salads can be made with shocking speed. According to Morrison, you can drive off with your salad in less than four minutes. Other chains including Just Salad and Chopt are opening up drive-through lanes to boost convenience. Sweetgreen, which has also dabbled with the drive-through, has installed salad-assembling robots in several locations, which can reportedly make 500 salads an hour.

[Read: Your fast food is already automated]

Greater accessibility to salad, in general, is a good thing. America could stand to eat a lot more of it. No doubt some salads will be consumed outside of work: on a park bench with friends, perhaps, or on a blanket at the beach—a girl can dream! But surely many of them will be packed, ordered, and picked up with frightening speed, only to maximize the time spent working in the glow of a computer screen, the crunching of lettuce punctuated by the chirping of notifications.

As I lunched on kale and brussels sprouts while writing this story, my silent hope was that they might offset all the bad that I was doing to my body by sitting at my desk for almost eight hours straight. Dining while distracted makes overeating more likely; sitting for long stretches raises the risk of diabetes and heart disease. People who take proper lunch breaks, in contrast, have improved mental health, less burnout, and more energy. No kind of cheap, fast salad can make up for working so fervidly that taking a few minutes off to enjoy a salad is not possible or even desirable.

Earlier this month, Sweetgreen introduced a new menu item you can add to its bowls: steak. The company’s CEO said that, during testing, it was a “dinnertime favorite.” That the sad desk salad could soon creep into other mealtimes may be the saddest thing yet.