In the decade and a half since Chipotle launched its take on a tortilla-free burrito and made itself into a household name, bowls have become the biggest thing in fast-casual dining. A 2014 study found a 14 percent increase in sales of “Mexican bowls” over two years, and an 8 percent bump in “Asian bowls” (a problematic term since it lumps roughly half the world’s cultures into one appropriated concept, but that’s an issue for another time).
And bowls are still trending. “To call 2017 the year of the bowl would not necessarily be an overstatement,” a food forecaster told QSR Magazine in January.
In Philly, you don’t need an expert to tell you bowls are hot — just look around. Not only can you order some kind of bowl at almost any quick-service spot, there’s been an explosion in places based around bowls and bowls alone.
The latest to land is NYC’s Just Salad, which opened at 1729 Chestnut St. earlier this month. That Rittenhouse address puts it right smack in the middle between two other salad-centric bowl chains: Philly-founded Honeygrow and DC-based Sweetgreen, each a block away in either direction.
All three are exceedingly similar — and not just because of their focus on leafy greens.
Each offers endless customization options, but also presents a menu of pre-designed creations that pulls from all over the world for flavor inspiration. (Unlike the focus on Mediterranean at Verts or Korean at Rice & Mix, for example.) Each promotes sustainability as a core value. Each uses fresh-never-frozen ingredients. Each suggests its dishes are generally healthy but will still leave you satisfied.
So, which deserves your hard-earned cash? We visited each place and ordered the suggested quinoa salad option with no modifications as part of an informal survey to help you decide.
Make It Grain (orange sherry vinaigrette, wheat berries, red quinoa, organic arugula, grapes, roasted carrots, feta, roasted cashews)
Farmers Market Grain Bowl (organic quinoa, seasonal fruit, grape tomatoes, cucumbers, organic mesclun, mint leaves, goat cheese)
Spicy Sabzi (organic baby spinach, shredded kale, spicy broccoli, raw beets, organic carrots, bean sprouts, spicy quinoa, basil, roasted sesame tofu, sweetgreen hot sauce, carrot chile vinaigrette)
We timed how long it took from placing our order to being handed the finished bowl and paying for it.
Gold: Just Salad (3 min. 41 sec)
Silver: Sweetgreen (4 min. 8 sec.)
Bronze: Honeygrow (5 min. 32 sec.)
Note: The length of the line can also affect how fast you get your food if you go during the lunchtime rush. We didn’t time that, but a few stops by each store during peak hours showed that Sweetgreen regularly has the biggest queue. That might be because Just Salad is a newcomer and folks haven’t worked it into their routines yet. Also, the line at Honeygrow is more spread out because of its touchscreen ordering system.
These aren’t full-service restaurants, of course, but employee interaction still matters.
Gold: Just Salad
Bright and sprightly counter worker attentively took order right away, then asked once about potential customization. Bowl put together carefully, with employee consulting instructions along the way. Register worker alert and ready to quickly process payment.
Minimal interaction, as order is placed on a touchscreen kiosk, where payment is also made. Number shouted loudly when it was ready to pick up. Handed over with a brief smile and a “thank you.”
Counter workers chatting among themselves, no one looked up to greet or even acknowledge arrival in store. Once a worker started on the order, friendly service. Several customization questions throughout the process including desired quantity of dressing (light, medium or heavy). Took a moment for register worker to stop chatting with colleague and process payment.
All three spots follow environmentally-friendly mantras, to different extents. And the shape of the bowl differs widely.
Shape: Deep bowls with wider mouth than Honeygrow
Material:Biodegradable cornstarch-based plastic
Lid tightness: Very high
Silver: Just Salad
Shape: Wide and shallow bowl makes it easy to pick around and design each bite but also easy for ingredients to fall off the side as you eat
Material: Paper fiber bottom (or buy a reusable plastic bowl to get discounts on future orders)
Lid tightness: Medium-high
Shape: Bowl deeper than it is wide, which means dressing and small bits sink and can glop at bottom
Material: Made from recyclable plastic
Lid tightness: Medium
There wasn’t a single wilted piece of lettuce (or kale, or spinach, or arugula) in any of the bowls. In fact, all of the ingredients at all three places were so crisp, you’d be happy to get produce that good if you were buying it yourself at the supermarket.
Whether or not you like a certain salad dressing is subjective, of course. So here we’re looking at how well the ingredients meshed and how well they were tossed together.
Entire bowl evenly mixed so each forkful contained nearly all ingredients without effort — and all were complimentary. Kale not stringy or chewy (didn’t even get stuck in teeth like usual), and well-tempered by the baby spinach.
Silver: Just Salad
Not mixed together at all (even though the marketing photo shows it that way). Are you supposed to shake it together yourself? Unknown, but if you do it can lead to bruising of ingredients, especially the fresh nectarines, in this case. When ingredients actually did all make it into one bite, however, great balance of of sweet/savory and crunchy/soft.
Evenly mixed except for nuts, which were sprinkled on top but quickly slid to the bottom of the bowl. Combination of arugula and vinaigrette made for a sharp, almost bitter overall taste — a greater quantity of grapes, roasted carrots or feta would have softened it and made it more pleasant.
Calorie-counting isn’t the only thing that matters when it comes to eating healthy, but it does factor in.
Gold: Just Salad (410 calories)
Silver: Sweetgreen (440 calories)
Bronze: Honeygrow (570 calories)
None of these bowls are cheap, and they vary in size.
Gold: Honeygrow ($8.95; middle-sized but closer to large than small)
Silver: Sweetgreen ($10.21; largest of the three)
Bronze: Just Salad ($10.25; smallest of the three)
We tallied the rankings above, assigning each gold a value of 3 points, with silver equaling 2 and bronze 1. The results:
Just Salad: 14 points
Sweetgreen: 13 points
Honeygrow: 9 points
Hey congrats, Just Salad, welcome to town!