In the summer of 2016, Sweetgreen executive Kevin Quandt got a confidential tip about something rotten that was going on inside his company's restaurants. Or, to be more precise, about something rotting that was going out of them: garbage.
As vice president of supply chain and sustainability, Quandt was in charge of sourcing ingredients that went into the Santa Monica, Calif.-based fast-casual chain's salads and grain bowls, as well as its takeout containers, disposable cutlery and cups. He was also in charge of what happened to all the waste collected in Sweetgreen's then-80 locations, most of it consisting of food scraps, paper and compostable bioplastic.
Since 2010, in-store signs have assured diners "Nothing from inside Sweetgreen goes to the landfill." But for most of the time since, that hasn't been entirely true. In many of the company's biggest markets, municipal composting was and is nonexistent. Even where it was available, composters often refused to handle bioplastics, forcing the company to come up with its own solutions, of sometimes dubious efficacy.
In New York City, the company employed a broker to collect the organic waste from seven restaurants and truck them to a facility upstate. Then an industry friend put a bug in Quandt's ear: Are you sure this guy's really taking your compost where he says he is? Quandt ran the tip past another trusted contact, who agreed the vendor was not to be trusted.
It was the kind of red flag Quandt had been encountering more and more often as he went about the Sisyphean task of auditing the company's waste operations, a project he'd begun shortly after joining Sweetgreen from the meal-kit start-up Blue Apron in 2016. Quandt dialed up the broker, who freely admitted he'd been tossing Sweetgreen's green waste into trash dumps.
"So we worked to phase them out," Quandt says. "Sometimes you think you have what you should be doing, but then you keep digging deeper and you learn all sorts of things."
The same could be said for the millions of customers who pay $10 to $15 a pop for Sweetgreen salads and grain bowls, telling themselves that money buys not just a healthy meal but one that's good for the world -- the ingredients organically grown and locally sourced, the workers fairly treated, the packaging minimal and eco-friendly, just weeks away from returning to soil. That's been the chain's premise since 2007, when co-founder Nicolas Jammet and two of his Georgetown University classmates, Jonathan Neman and Nathaniel Ru, opened their first location in Washington, D.C. It now has more than 100, with plans to double that number over the next three years, and took in more than $300 million in revenue last year.
Backed by $478 million in venture capital, Sweetgreen has lately been experimenting with delivery-only "ghost kitchens" and non-bowl food items, but always within certain parameters. In posters and social media postings, the brand touts its corporate values of transparency, sustainability and animal welfare. "We're always looking for ways to source smarter, to make better decisions and to help Sweetgreen and its customers be a positive force in the world and on the food system," the company says on a page of its website titled "Our Food Ethos." Sweetgreen has won attention for innovative human resources policies such as providing five months of paid parental leave to all employees and an emergency-cash fund for line workers.
But privately, its executives acknowledge how hard it can be to live up to its ideals, particularly when it comes to garbage. The fragmented nature of waste management systems, the dearth of facilities that process bioplastics and the many tradeoffs around price and sustainability have made it difficult at times for Sweetgreen to match its rhetoric, or even know when it was failing to.
For about six months beginning in late 2017, the company was stuck using non-certified compostable salad bowls after learning the company that supplied them had added petrochemicals to its formulation. Sweetgreen solved that problem in 2018 by eliminating plastic salad containers and adopting bowls made of molded sugarcane fiber for all its offerings. But in 2019, the New Food Economy reported that the molded-fiber bowls tested positive for polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, a potentially hazardous and non-biodegradable chemical compound. (Sweetgreen says it's working on a better permanent solution.)