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An Ode to the Future of Fast Fresh

Rare are the Yelp reviews that read like odes. When scrolling through sweetgreen’s, however, plenty are the sonnets, soliloquies, and ballads clearly written in the blissed-out state that follows being well-fed. That’s just how good of a concept Michael Stebner and the team at sweetgreen have developed—a concept that foodservice suppliers have been dreaming of finding to differentiate their own programs. After visiting a location earlier this year, I find myself holding back my own words of high praise, my own “Ode to a Salad.”

sweetgreen is one of those ideas you hear about and think, “How has this not existed for decades?” The idea is simple and familiar: Consumers can watch their order as it’s assembled and modify and personalize it on the spot. What really sets the chain apart from others in the fast-casual space is its menu: all produce, greens, and health-forward fare. As its Director of Culinary for the past five years, Michael has been crucial in curating sweetgreen’s menu, which is a love letter in and of itself to the local produce and fresh food he has familiarized himself with throughout his career. This menu is easily what first sparked the sweetgreen frenzy years ago.

Michael Stebner, Director of Culinary, sweetgreen“sweetgreen is recognized as a gold standard for healthy fast-casual food,” Michael tells me. “It’s not hard when eighty percent of your products are produce, and we only offer chicken and steelhead trout as our non-plant-based options. The guests keep telling us they love our combinations and they are so satisfied by our veggies-at-the-center-of-the-plate formula.”

This formula has put sweetgreen on the map and continues to serve as the flashing arrow pointing fresh faces like my own to its doors. Michael himself is one of the biggest advocates for this formula and, as Director of Culinary, he has had the privilege of developing it in new, innovative ways.

“My role is to lead all food innovation at sweetgreen. I have four chefs and assistants that work in my department. As a team, we’re focused on developing seasonal core menus, new channel products, chef collaborations, food merchandising, and being the face of the culinary function for events,” Michael explains, “which is crazy because when I began my career in the ’80s, there were no celebrity chefs or Food Network. There were just hard workers and people who loved making food.”

Like many who have become our industry’s luminaries, Michael began his culinary career in high school. His first job at the age of 16 was as a busboy at the Radisson Hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona. While he initially took the job because his best friend worked there, he quickly tapped into a type of contentment that most of us only hope to uncover.

“I really enjoyed working the Sunday brunch buffet, which took me out of bed at 4 a.m. to be at work early enough to set up all of the tables and decorate the buffet. This was my favorite thing to do,” Michael recalls. “Even though I was super tired, I worked hard and enjoyed the work.”

Eventually, Michael found himself gravitating toward the kitchen. While he didn’t know it yet, he would soon discover that he was cut from the same apron as those cooking up the food.

"sweetgreen is recognized as a gold standard for healthy fast-casual food."

Michael Stebner, Director of Culinary, sweetgreen

“The cooks and chefs were so cool,” Michael laughs. “They wore fancy white uniforms and toques on their heads. As a busboy, the chefs and cooks paid little attention to me, but I couldn’t help but always be in the kitchen, watching them grind it out. I wanted to be a part of that team. The Executive Chef’s name was Bob Roca, and to this day I still consider him a mentor and take many opportunities to thank him. I approached Bob about letting me work in the kitchen, even though I had no experience. He hesitated, but ultimately allowed me to work in the pantry under his supervision. I ruined so much food and cut and burned myself so many times in those early days.”

But Michael was, and still is, nothing if not hardworking, and it was at this time that he received important advice that kept him where he needed, and wanted, to be. Bob gifted Michael a copy of the Culinary Institute of America’s textbook, with the words “Don’t waste your money on culinary school. Everything you need to know is in the pages of this book” along with it. Bob’s words became Michael’s mantra as he continued practicing his craft and studying the culinary arts, all while attending high school and juggling his full-time job as a pantry chef.

A few years later, Bob went to work for a different hotel and, at 18 years old, Michael decided to continue working as a line cook under his mentor. The hotel’s sister property was the Phoenician Resort, which in the 1990s operated the best restaurant in the world in Michael’s eyes. The Phoenician became his end goal as it offered him the opportunity to work with some of Phoenix’s top chefs, including Executive Chef Greg Waldron.

“My luck came in the form of one dinner service: Chef Waldron was having dinner with his mother in our dining room. I asked the sous chef if he was going to go out and say hello, but he declined. I took it upon myself to go out to the dining room and introduce myself,” Michael says. “I asked Chef Waldron how his dinner was, and he gave me some feedback.”

After that brief encounter, Michael didn’t simply go back to the kitchen. As a young man equal parts driven and capable, Michael taking the bull by the horns—or the chef by the toque so to speak—led to a new door that opened to a pivotal next step in his career.

“A few days later, Bob got a call from Chef Waldron asking if he could spare a few cooks for a big event at the Phoenician—and he mentioned my name! I was going to the big leagues—just for two days, but I was so excited,” Michael shares. “I was determined to get another chance to work and impress the chefs at the Phoenician, and sure enough, Chef Waldron called again asking if I could work for him permanently. I could not believe it. I was so happy and excited to be working at the resort and felt so lucky to be there with little experience. All I had was the raw desire to learn and work hard.”

Michael loves that story because it encompasses the first 20 years of his career.

“I always say that going out to meet Chef Waldron and his mother was a defining moment in my career,” Michael adds.

As Director of Culinary, Michael leads all food innovation at sweetgreen, including seasonal core menus, new channel products, chef collaborations, and food merchandising

After two and a half years at the Phoenician, Michael then headed to Las Vegas to join Chef Jimmy Boyce at Caesars Palace, before they both went south to work at Loews Coronado in San Diego, California. He worked there for six years in four different positions, eventually ending up as the Chef de Cuisine at Azzura Hotel.

His career reached another turning point when he took a new hotel job at La Jolla. It was here where he learned about local farms and producers—and where his career path was thrown into sharp relief.

“After that, I opened Region, my own chef-driven, farm-to-table restaurant with a daily menu. We opened with a bang and were using one-hundred-percent local, in-season produce from dozens of farms. We were one of the first places in San Diego to do this, and it was a magical time,” Michael says. “Ally, my now wife, and I started as business partners and ultimately fell in love on the cook line. We got married, started a family, closed Region, and moved back to Phoenix. It was then that we went to work for Sam Fox, which turned into me helping Sam and Dr. Andrew Weil conceptualize and operate True Food Kitchen. We caught lightning in a bottle, and the brand grew like crazy, giving me my first dose of scaling a business.”

During this time, Michael further established his place in the industry’s canon, writing a New York Times bestselling cookbook, True Food: Seasonal, Sustainable, Simple, Pure. Michael learned from Dr. Weil for seven years, honing his knowledge of whole food cooking and health.

At this point in his story, I realize that chance encounters are Michael’s bread and butter, salad and dressing. And sure enough, Michael reveals that he met the founders of sweetgreen at a True Food Kitchen location in Santa Monica, California.

sweetgreen’s Outposts offer free fast delivery to the workplace

“As the story goes, they just so happened to pick up a copy of the True Food cookbook that was on display in the restaurant, and they said, ‘We need this guy!’ They called me, and I wrestled with the idea of going from a full-service cooking environment to a quick-service restaurant that specializes in salads. It was a hard decision,” Michael divulges.

Michael tells me that he ultimately decided sweetgreen was the place for him for two reasons: One, sweetgreen is big into improving the communities it operates in, as well as is committed to improving childhood nutrition through its “sweetgreen in schools” program. Two, sweetgreen was an up-and-coming start-up that was offering equity as part of the package, and as a restaurant chef, that had never been an option.

“Once I heard sweetgreen’s spiel I was sold,” Michael admits. “I have to say that the past five years have proven to be so much more than those two things. I have never worked with smarter, more passionate people. It is really refreshing to scale with a company that never looks for a cheaper way to do things, which is very much not like any other restaurant company I have ever worked for.”

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I could taste this passion in sweetgreen’s salads, and it is one of the many reasons why foodservice suppliers have flocked to the company’s doors just as much as consumers, resulting in Michael’s recipes reaching 70,000 hungry people daily. Despite this insane accomplishment, Michael has never stopped relishing the opportunity of working with the best chefs in the country, which includes those who are up and coming and just as green as he once was.

"I think my greatest accomplishment is that I have been able to inspire young cooks and kids working at sweetgreen as their first job..."

“I think my greatest accomplishment is that I have been able to inspire young cooks and kids working at sweetgreen as their first job and, after working here and cooking with real ingredients, they want to pursue a career in this business. My dream is for rising chefs to consider me a mentor or feel like I inspired them in their career or life. That would be my greatest accomplishment,” Michael shares with me.

Even though I’ve only just met Michael, I know that this must already be the case. He and the sweetgreen team have simply worked hard, inspiringly hard, to broaden the reach of the company, both physically and philosophically, for this to be anything but the case.

“Our number one goal right now is to scale sustainably. We say we want to become more of a food platform—but that is in the future,” Michael explains. “We are in a position to lead the revolution toward healthy and satisfying food that is approachable and available for as many people in as many demographics as possible. We are opening stores in Texas, Colorado, and Florida in the next eighteen months to do exactly that.”

Looking ahead a year or so, I can only imagine sweetgreen becoming more of a household name, and Michael doesn’t disagree.

“We will continue to double in size every two to three years, while never wavering from our mission of connecting people to real food. Years from now, I hope we will still be making an impact on the people that work for us, on the communities we operate in, and on the food system as a whole,” Michael concludes.

One sunny L.A. afternoon, I find myself sitting at a sweetgreen location, making my way through a pretty affordable salad of epic proportions. A salad so fresh, so tasty, so nourishing for my body and soul, I can’t help but pull out my notebook and begin writing, “Rare are the Yelp reviews that read like odes…”