The Death of the $15 Salad

How pizza won the pandemic—and Sweetgreen got left behind

The best meal I had all pandemic cost $1.14 and took about 90 seconds to make. It was a Margherita pizza inhaled in the car on a desolate day in late April. I know the precise cost because my husband is the chef who made it: 61 cents for a few slices of fresh buffalo mozzarella, 24 cents for the San Marzano tomatoes and salt, a quarter for enough basil leaves to supply the rest of the menu’s needs for free, and just 11 cents for the dough, made from a mix of top-shelf imported Italian flours. In normal times, his restaurant sold a Margherita for $20, but he could get away with selling it for $10 and still reach 10% food cost.

We are a nation in the throes of an unprecedented eight-month pizza binge that shows no signs of abating. Multiple pizzerias in Los Angeles reported a 250% rise in sales on Election Day, and on Thursday, Papa John’s reported quarterly same-store sales growth of 23.8%. For months now, the underlying forces for the sustained pizza craze have been as hotly debated within the restaurant industry as the election results have been parsed by professional pollsters. Stress eating is a major cause; quarantine-induced failure of imagination and the return of three major-league sports within weeks of one another over the summer certainly didn’t hurt.

But the actual reason that doesn’t get nearly enough notice is that pizza is one of the few genres of food that is actually more profitable than — and almost as addictive as — booze. Fries and fried chicken — not wings, but tenders and drumsticks — are the only other foods that come close. If that reminds you at all of the suggestions that await you on Grubhub and Uber Eats, well, that’s what’s left of the menu when restaurants lose their alcohol sales and are forced to fork over a third of their gross revenues to delivery app commissions. There are not a lot of foods where taste collides so perfectly with profit: Pizza stands alone.

“It’s definitely the business to be in right now,” says Alex Gent, audibly apologetic, of his weirdly prosperous niche of the restaurant industry. Gent sells beautiful Italian-made wood-burning pizza ovens for the Brewster, New York–based company Forza Forni. The company is on track to have its best sales in its 15-year history in the middle of an apocalypse for many of the restaurateurs to whom Gent is selling the ovens. Business is especially strong in the South, where patio season is long and the density of pizza shops per capita is low enough that many chefs at “upscale” restaurants have converted, at least for the moment, into fancy pizzerias. Just before Halloween, more than 2,000 locations of the Panera Bread chain, departing with years spent identifying itself as a lighter alternative to typical fast food, unveiled its own pizza menu. Up north, where good pizza is more abundant, the preferred pivot is the fried chicken ghost kitchen, a delivery-only restaurant that exists only on the internet. Outback Steakhouse and rapper Tyga (in conjunction with Planet Hollywood founder Robert Earl) have launched them, as have celebrity chefs David Chang and Michael Mina, two chefs who in 2019 might have sooner stabbed themselves with butter knives than embarked upon a trail blazed by Outback Steakhouse and the guy who founded Planet Hollywood.

But times are nothing if not desperate, and the financial case for making a pivot to pizza is anything but ambiguous. Tens of thousands of independent restaurants have closed permanently since March, but independent pizzerias listed on the delivery app Slice have seen sales grow 60%. The chain Marco’s Pizza, which just opened its 1,000th location, in Kissimmee, Florida, has seen sales surge roughly 50% every week since mid-April, according to the consumer data analytics firm Sense360. The pandemic has even breathed new life into the forgotten Pizza Hut chain, which reported a 9% rise in U.S. same-store sales last quarter despite the July bankruptcy of its debt-saddled biggest franchisee, NPC International — which said in a filing that its Pizza Hut division’s 2020 earnings (before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) had exceeded its internal forecasts by a factor of eight. And mediocre pizza behemoth Domino’s, which was starting from a much higher base after reporting 38 consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth, reported a 16% uptick in same-store sales in its second quarter.

Back in 2008, Domino’s was a $3 stock; it is now close to a $400 stock. The same pundits telling us now that pizza is “recession-proof” described it then as an unaffordable extravagance.

The losing side of this stark new restaurant reality is a virtually endless list, but the unequivocal biggest loser has probably been the so-called $15 salad genre embodied by the fast-food chain cum tech unicorn Sweetgreen, which recently announced it would be laying off 20% of its corporate staff in its second round of post-outbreak job cuts. Hard numbers on this mostly privately held category, which includes Chopt Creative Salads, Just Salad, Fresh & Co, and True Food Kitchen — all of which have at one point been hailed as the “next Sweetgreen” — were easier to come by in more prosperous times, but the few out there are ugly. Sweetgreen sales fell about 60% during the eight weeks after the first shutdowns, according to Sense360, and the one publicly traded chain in the salad business, Toronto’s Freshii, reported a 51.4% plunge in its second-quarter sales.

The mass shift to remote work is the salad industry’s most conspicuous problem: Nearly all the chains are heavily reliant on capturing the office-worker lunch rush, so much so that Sweetgreen has an entire arm of its business devoted to delivering salads in bulk to offices free of charge. Even author and New York Times columnist Jessica Grose, who is such an aficionado of the $15 salad that she wrote a book called Sad Desk Salad, hasn’t eaten Sweetgreen since February, when she had the buffalo chicken salad three times in two weeks. And Grose doesn’t plan on returning until she’s forced to go back to the office, which won’t be until next July at the earliest. There’s a Sweetgreen not too far from her Brooklyn apartment, but “when we get takeout, we usually try to get it from neighborhood restaurants” — or Domino’s, because “sometimes the kids, like, specifically request it.”

You might assume that pizza is a recession food, while salad is not, but the landscape for both has shifted remarkably since the last recession. Pizza sales, particularly at Domino’s, plummeted during the financial crisis of 2008–2009. At the time, pundits blamed the economy, the dollar menu, and Lehman Brothers, which had underwritten one of the pizza chain’s lines of credit. Back then, Domino’s was a $3 stock; it is now close to a $400 stock. The same pundits telling us now that pizza is “recession-proof” described it then as an unaffordable extravagance. “You can’t go into a Pizza Hut or Domino’s and spend $3 or $4 and get a meal… It’s a pretty high average check,” a restaurant analyst said at the time.

The trouble for Domino’s had actually started a decade earlier, after founder Tom Monaghan sold the company to private equity firm Bain Capital. Bain extracted some $2 billion from the chain over the course of its ownership, mostly by floating high-interest debt and making budget cuts resulting in a pizza sauce that focus groups likened to ketchup. By 2008, a consumer survey revealed that the average American ranked Domino’s, which had just debuted its beloved “order tracker” feature, first among pizza chains for “convenience” purposes but dead last in the realm of “taste.”

Domino’s overhauled all its recipes and produced a series of disarmingly sincere commercials about the new and improved taste. Sales began to rise almost instantaneously, but somehow the company’s dramatic reversal of fortune was credited to the chain’s supposed metamorphosis into a “technology company that happens to sell pizza,” juicing PR with stunts like testing delivery drones and self-driving cars in its supposed “quest for 10-minute pizza delivery.”

Meanwhile, the great pizza depression of 2008–09 inspired financiers to explore slightly less profitable avenues in their search for the next big quick-serve cash cow, and a little salad chain called Sweetgreen was busy casting itself as the Domino’s of salad. Sweetgreen’s three founders went to great lengths to paint their business as a tech company, not a restaurant group, even as Sweetgreen had committed to the expensive process of not just washing and chopping but also marinating (and roasting and blanching and blackening) dozens of high-quality locally grown ingredients and making 18 dressings from scratch each morning.

Not only have salad businesses like Sweetgreen been hurt by the collapse of the office economy, but also, in this time of acute stress, salads — especially a takeout salad — just don’t hold the same appeal.

By 2017, the founders were running out of the $165 million they had raised — just as foot traffic was beginning to level off in its stores. So they made a bold decision: They doubled down on the “restaurant chain as tech company” narrative and promised to turn the company into a “disruptive innovation machine.” They plowed cash into their online ordering app, halted new store openings in favor of opening delivery-only “ghost kitchens,” and raised an additional $200 million to build what Inc. described as “a food platform that is as dialed into each customer’s micro­biome and barre routine — and perhaps 23andMe profile — as it is tracking its farmers’ crops through the blockchain for peak freshness and taste.”

In 2019, Restaurant Business named Sweetgreen “Tech Accelerator of the Year,” a distinction it had bestowed the previous year on Domino’s. If anyone should have been poised to become the iconic salad chain for the Great 2020 Pivot to Takeout, it was supposed to be Sweetgreen. But Covid-19 changed all that.

Not only have salad businesses like Sweetgreen been hurt by the collapse of the office economy, but also, in this time of acute stress, salads — especially a takeout salad — just don’t hold the same appeal. Erin Wade, a sustainable farmer, writer, and restaurateur based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, describes her three Vinaigrette restaurants, the first of which opened in 2008, as “Sweetgreen if it had been founded by a woman.”

Like the Sweetgreen trio, she wanted to help change the food system by creating demand for sustainable produce via addictively delicious salads. But Wade does not believe that goal can be achieved in a to-go container procured via smartphone — or that her food can compete with the comforting power of pizza, at least not in its current takeout form. “Pizza triggers deep, deep, deep childhood memories.” she says. “Melted cheese in any form just takes you to a certain place” — whereas boxed salads remind you of “the office.”

To reach those deep recesses of our hippocampi that trigger cravings of certain foods like salad, Wade argues, her guests need to be able to sit down at a table, put away the phone, inhale the aromas of warm food dropping onto nearby tables, and absorb “the magic of a busy restaurant, which at its essence is a place you go to breathe other people’s air.” While Wade’s revenues have recovered to almost 70% of their year-ago levels thanks to takeout business, the experience has been discouraging. “I almost can’t breathe standing on the line stuffing order after order into compostable boxes that I know aren’t going into anyone’s compost pile,” she says. “I’m just worried we’re going to emerge from this with a deep-seated germophobia, if only because we are filling our landfills with fucking to-go containers.” Just thinking about it all, she says, “makes me want a pizza.”

senior fellow at the American Economic Liberties Project, co-founder of Jezebel, former Wall Street Journal reporter, off-again waitress, mommy

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