The Whole-Grain Startup

you’re going to guac this week. #monday �

A photo posted by sweetgreen (@sweetgreen) on Jun 8, 2015 at 8:25am PDT

It may seem a little weird that a company which primarily sells leaves has raised nearly as much venture capital as the most insurgent advertising agency of our day, but when one considers in full the context in which Sweetgreen has amassed ninety-five million dollars, the logic of it will comfortably subsume you like a warm grain bowl.

The tossed (or chopped) salad is the optimal lunch for the optimized worker of the “knowledge” or post-employment variety, who require sustenance that is fairly healthy 1 but fundamentally palatable, which fulfills both their bodily needs and their capital-contorted sense of consumerist ethics with minimal friction. To regurgitate:

The chopped salad is engineered, in other words, to free one’s hand and eyes from the task of consuming nutrients, so that precious attention can directed toward a small screen, where it is more urgently needed, so it can consume data: work email or Amazon’s nearly infinite catalog or Facebook’s actually infinite News Feed, where, as one shops for diapers or engages with the native advertising sprinkled between the not-hoaxes and baby photos, one is being productive by generating revenue for a large internet company, which is obviously good for the economy, or at least it is certainly better than spending lunch reading a book from the library, because who is making money from that?

On the spectrum of food that runs from a vine-ripe organic heirloom tomato to a meal-in-a-pill, the no-less-engineered chopped salad with local vegetables sits far enough above Soylent goop that it can be consumed from its perfectly ergonomic bowl with minimal self-consciousness; at the same time, as an optimized feed, it prepares workers — particularly the ones who provide labor directly for and through apps and will soon, if they do not already, find ten dollars to be an overly extravagant amount of capital to exchange for lunch — for a near-future in which Soylent is their best option for mid-shift nutritional replenishment. It is more than a little convenient, then, that Soylent and Sweetgreen have both received tens of millions of dollars from the venture capitalists who are by and large financing the creation of the post-employment app economy. (This is part of what one might call “owning the whole stack.”2)

I suspect that Sweetgreen is underplaying one intended use of its new money, which is probably the actual reason it was handed another thirty-five million dollars: further development of its mobile ordering system, which can currently be used to order food for in-store pickup. The next logical step is on-demand delivery of Sweetgreen nutrient bowls (it’s easy to imagine how it will be pitched to the media as “powered by an Uber-like logistics system”). There is currently — no exaggeration — hundreds of millions dollars and a staggering number of startups dedicated to solving this exact “problem”: quickly delivering food that is carefully calibrated for both taste and nutrtition to anyone in a metropolitan area of a certain size for around (or just under) fifteen dollars per meal. The venture capitalist is investing, he hopes, in some magical hybrid of Uber and Chipotle that will totally change the way millions of wealthy (or at least aspirational!) people eat kale. And that’s worth at least as much as an Instagram, right?

1.The soft requirement that such food be at least moderately healthy is complex enough in its rationale to be worthy of a separate post, but it is some admixture of the modern Valley quest for optimization (of the body), practicality (sustaining sixty-hour-plus work weeks requires some level of self-care), cultural shame (cultivating a healthy body is now as much an expectation in large metropolitan areas as cultivating a healthy knowledge of the best and coolest restaurants), and outsized consumerist aspirations about purchasing the good life.

2.WeWork, which is building apartments in addition offices, is doing pioneering work on the shelter part of the human stack, while Soylent’s founder is hard at work on pooping.