Home Customized jerseys Why Sweetgreen’s redesign could be a headache for employees

Why Sweetgreen’s redesign could be a headache for employees

A rendering of the news

A rendering of Sweetgreen’s new “sweetlane”, complete with a mysterious peephole
Graphic: sweetgreen

Yesterday, in a press release sent to The takeaway, Sweetgreen has announced its first-ever drive-thru concept. Coming soon to an affluent Chicago suburb, the restaurant will feature the brand’s first “sweetlane,” a drive-thru lane designed “to increase convenience for digital customers.” It’s a moving pickup lane like the one you’ll soon see at chains like Taco Bell, but it has a unique feature: a round viewing window to “bring the in-store experience to our digital drive-thru customers”, as the brand puts it. As cooks who have worked in open kitchens know, this poses a number of problems.

What do cooks really think of open kitchens?

First, it’s important to note that most Sweetgreen locations are, in essence, open kitchens. When you place your order at the counter, employees prepare your personalized entree in front of you, just like you’d see at other quick-service destinations like Subway or Chipotle. But most Sweetgreen locations also have glass-enclosed prep rooms where you can watch employees prepare vegetables for the quick-serve line. This ostensibly helps the consumer feel confident that their salad vegetables are as fresh as possible. But as writer Tara Calihman tells me, this level of observation in the restaurant can be “embarrassing as shit” for the people preparing the food.

“My first job in college was at a pizzeria with a big window where customers could see us making their pizzas,” Calihman says. “I hated it because my friends would come and laugh at me while I was working.” Former chef Catherine McBride agrees, citing her experience at a former high-end restaurant. For McBride, the experience was less awkward and more entertaining. “It was a bit like [the customers’] minds, they were sort of watching a cooking show, but we were actually cooking real food for a real restaurant and having real things to do and real things that were on fire or hot or sharp,” McBride says.

McBride also points out that the extreme visibility has led to an uncanny focus on cook appearances. “Because it was an open kitchen, the focus was on how we looked,” she says. “We had to have perfectly clean and ironed chef’s uniforms. I used to get to work really early to get mine ironed perfectly because if we got wrinkled or dirty they would send us back to the locker room to take care of it.

Does the open kitchen model translate to drive-thru?

A certain level of customer scrutiny is inherent in Sweetgreen’s business model. But is it really necessary for customers sitting in the mobile pick-up service queue? Calihman says no. “I think it’s a terrible idea,” she said. “Drive-thru employees put up with too much shit as if. That’s asking for trouble with authorized and picky customers.

I am inclined to agree. I can definitely see the appeal of an open kitchen in a smaller, more intimate restaurant. There, friendly regulars might have the chance to bond with the cooks, learning about their methods and life outside the kitchen. But I can’t imagine Sweetgreen “sweetlane” customers are interested in building those relationships with the chain’s salad artists. It seems more likely that Sweetgreen’s drive-thru window will be used to weed out Sweetgreen employees who don’t cut peppers fast enough for customers to like.