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Return of the Lunch: Salad Chains Are Thriving

Bracha Arnold
May 24, 2023
Return of the Lunch: Salad Chains Are Thriving

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent work-from-home orders dealt a significant blow to many downtown lunchtime eateries –  but now, salad chains are once again experiencing an increase in visits. We take a closer look at three leading players in the industry - Chopt, Sweetgreen, and Just Salad – to see how they are faring in a hybrid office world.

More Salad For You 

Chopt, Sweetgreen, and Just Salad all experienced visit growth over the past few years relative to a January 2020 baseline, with the three chains consistently outperforming the wider QSR and fast-casual categories. Visits to these salad chains have been on an upward trajectory from mid-2021, despite pandemic restrictions, hybrid office formats, and inflation.

What is driving the resilience of these chains? One possible explanation is that, as interest in healthy food continues to rise, more and more consumers are frequenting restaurants where they can grab a nutrient-dense meal. 

The visit growth is also likely driven by fleet expansion. Sweetgreen opened 36 new stores in 2022 and Just Salad nearly doubled its physical footprint between 2021 and 2022, while Chopt has also expanded into new markets.

Lunchtime Runs Look Different

Pre-pandemic, many office workers looked forward to their daily salad bowl. But with many offices going hybrid, how have visitation patterns to these lunchtime destinations shifted? 

A closer look at the visitor journey for salad chain customers indicates that more people are visiting these chains from home, with the share of customers to each chain coming from home increasing between 2019 and 2023. At two of the three chains analyzed the share of customers returning to their homes following a visit also grew.

This suggests that, despite the staying power of remote and hybrid work, many consumers are still willing to venture out to grab lunch – and salad chains seem to be pivoting to meet their customers where they are. Sweetgreen and Just Salad are focusing their current expansion on the suburbs, while NYC-based Chopt is moving south to reach more residential areas. And the increase in overall visits coupled with the larger share of traffic coming to and from work indicates that this strategy seems to be working for these brands. 

Loyal to the Salad

Location intelligence indicates that the three salad chains are not only seeing strength relative to pre-pandemic – zooming into more recent traffic metrics indicates that these brands are also solidifying their position among healthy food fans. Sweetgreen, Just Salad, and Chopt all saw an increase in their share of returning visitors between Q1 2022 and Q1 2023. 

The increase in returning visitors may be partially due to the chains’ respective loyalty programs. Sweetgreen’s loyalty program, which has both a free and paid tier, relaunched in April 2023. Eco-conscious Just Salad gives customers discounts for bringing in their reusable bowls, another way to encourage repeat visits in addition to its loyalty program. And Chopt, which has leaned into the omnichannel restaurant trend, operates an app which allows guests to customize their order and earn rewards. 

Fresh Bites

Once a fixture of office-building-heavy downtown areas, the salad bar has managed to adapt and shift to a new hybrid-work reality. By building customer loyalty, tapping into consumer interest in healthy foods, and even relocating to the suburbs, these salad chains prove that they can thrive under all circumstances. 

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