Who Will Win the Salad Wars?
A Crisp & Green billboard soars over 50th and France with the message “Locally Owned; Locally Loved.” As the Wayzata-based salad chain expands nationwide, the sign appears to be an innocent homage to its hometown market. But beneath the dressing, that billboard foretells an impending turf battle.
Sweetgreen is coming to town this fall. Crisp & Green’s larger, more established coastal rival became the first fast-casual salad chain to go public on the New York Stock Exchange in November. Now it’s in rapid growth mode, including three stores under construction in prime Twin Cities locations: Galleria in Edina, Grand Avenue in St. Paul, and the North Loop in Minneapolis—all within minutes of a Crisp & Green shop.
A unicorn in red ink
“This is only the first inning,” says Crisp & Green CEO Steele Smiley, sounding a lot like Sweetgreen’s founders on CNBC’s Squawk Box the day of their IPO. For the uninitiated, Sweetgreen is the salad chain to beat. Started in 2007 in Washington, D.C., by a trio of Georgetown University grads, Sweetgreen proved the scalability of made-to-order salads with farm-fresh ingredients and hipster add-ons like warm quinoa, shredded kale, and plenty of avocado, much as Chipotle did for burritos.
It has all the ingredients of a unicorn: passionate young founders prone to sweeping statements about “a mission to redefine the future of food”; a concept that checks many Gen Z boxes for healthy eating, local sourcing, and sustainability at an approachable price; slick branding and a tech-savvy digital ordering system. Investors tripped over themselves to get in on the movement, and Sweetgreen deftly raised a total of $478.6 million in venture capital, opening locations in big cities on both coasts. A successful IPO raised $364 million for the company.
But now that it’s public, so are all the wilted greens. Sweetgreen, which currently operates 150 locations on its way to a planned 1,000 by the end of the decade, has yet to turn a profit. It lost a reported $153 million in 2021—not atypical of the current generation of fast-moving, venture-backed startups.
Yet Sweetgreen’s rapid growth gives Smiley confidence that Crisp & Green can compete on a national level through franchising.
“We have an incredibly different perspective than a Wall Street-owned business,” says Smiley; he didn’t share numbers, but he hasn’t had to raise money to grow the company that started in 2016 with one downtown Wayzata shop. “We don’t have the pressure they have to grow the business. We’re focused exclusively on doing what’s right for the community.”
As of midsummer, Crisp & Green had 20 locations in seven states with plans for 60 by year’s end. The same competition between greens is playing out in other markets as Crisp & Green enters Colorado, Florida, and Texas, where Sweetgreen is already operating. Crisp & Green has 11 Twin Cities locations up and running (Smiley owns three; the rest are franchises) with plans to more than double its Minnesota presence, from Brainerd to Duluth to Prior Lake. Both chains have an app that streamlines digital orders and deliveries, which proved key in the early days of Covid-19 and fueled Crisp & Green’s franchise unit sales after of few years of flailing.
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Sweetgreen’s rapid growth gives Smiley confidence that Crisp & Green can compete on a national level through franchising.
“Local messaging is our battle cry everywhere we go,” Smiley says, emphasizing his franchise owners as well as partnerships with local gyms in each market—a nod to Smiley’s first startup, Steele Fitness, which he sold to Snap Fitness in 2013 (listen to his founder’s story on By All Means). “We’re very much connected to the fabric of our communities.”
Sweetgreen believes it is as well. “We’re students first, and we immerse ourselves in the community before every new market launch,” says Sweetgreen co-founder and chief concept officer Nicolas Jammet. “Given its booming restaurant and culinary scene and the opportunity to serve residents who are looking for more healthy options, Minneapolis felt like a natural next location for Sweetgreen.”
Crisp & Green is the underdog
Although Minnesotans might be less familiar with Sweetgreen, branding expert Marty Senn says the pressure is on Crisp & Green. “They need to really sharpen their brand, get clear on who they’re for and what they stand for, which can sometimes be more challenging with a franchise model,” says Senn, chief creative officer at Carmichael Lynch in Minneapolis. “Sweetgreen has done a great job of that already and comes in with a strong point of view expressed across everything they do. It’s Shake Shack for the salad set.”
In the North Loop, Sweetgreen will take over Moose & Sadie’s old space on Third Avenue, next to MartinPatrick 3—arguably the heart of the city’s hottest retail district. Crisp & Green is a few blocks away on Washington Avenue—high visibility, but less foot traffic in car-centric Minneapolis. Smiley shrugs it off. “I have 29 parking spots. Our volume is high. We think both players will be successful.”