A Faux Sweetgreen Storefront in Chinatown Probes the Racial Dynamics of Labor

For two weeks in July, there was a new Sweetgreen storefront in Manhattan’s Dimes Square. During its brief run, it offered longtime Chinatown residents and hipster artistic denizens alike a glint at what their lives could be, enhanced with the presence of a local Sweetgreen: healthy, well, and graced elegantly by a touch of Minimalist aesthetic. If anyone looked hard enough inside, they might have noticed elements that were more sinister — a manager leading workers in a repeating chant to the point of exhaustion, for instance — but the mere presence of the understated “sg” logo was enough to signal a new future for the neighborhood.

The catch is that the now-defunct Sweetgreen didn’t actually serve salads.

From July 12 through July 24, “Sweet Green” (2022) was a conceptual art installation at Chinatown Soup, a community-oriented gallery centering locally grounded social practices that has posited itself since 2015 as an artistic intervention in a rapidly changing neighborhood. Artist Alexander Si designs the project as an exploration of Sweetgreen as a brand.

Si painstakingly made every branding element by hand, including this “sg” sign that hung above the gallery.

“I like Sweetgreen — I’m not a hater of it!” he prefaced in an interview with Hyperallergic. “I was becoming more critical of it.”

Outside the gallery is Sweetgreen’s recognizable, kale-green logo, which Si painted by hand and fashioned from wood and steel. Si also built the tri-tiered wooden seating area, modeled directly after seating at some Sweetgreen locations, a design which suggests that its salads should be eaten with an air of spontaneity. A pick-up station populated with bowls was mounted to the wall with wood planks and a steel frame, and Si created a replica of Sweetgreen’s “Core Values” plaque, which is displayed at every location.

“To mimic this type of whiteness, this type of marketing that’s very attractive to the mainstream appetite, with my own hand as an immigrant to this country — especially with our history of our labor being mostly invisible — I wanted to embed my own labor in it in this insidious way,” Si said.

Si emulated the “Core Values” plaque that is displayed in most Sweetgreen stores with pyrography.

In addition to Si’s work materially duplicating the artifacts of Sweetgreen stores — a Brillo Boxes-style maneuver that critiques racism as it operates within consumer capitalism — Si also staged a 20-minute durational performance piece. It was a parody of a huddle that takes place before work begins at Sweetgreen, where the manager gives a pep talk that ends with a “sweet!” “green!” “sweet!” “green!” call-and-response. In Si’s version, which cast exclusively people of color, the group begins reciting the chant in unison. But by the end, everyone is dispirited, voices raspy and the pace of the back-and-forth grinding to a halt.

Si explains that his increasing suspicion of Sweetgreen paralleled his own journey of self-flection on how he had absorbed markers of whiteness to blend in as a recent immigrant to the United States. “I realized it was weird, going in and seeing all of these POC [people of color] Workers behind the glass — and in front of the glass, in line, is a mostly White, mostly middle-class kind of clientele, because the price range is unapproachable,” he said. “There’s something amiss there about the whole branding.”

Si’s installation is not the first to question what Sweetgreen’s explosively successful brand signifies in the broader context of American culture. In 2019, Jia Tolentino’s wildly popular essay collection Trick Mirror memorably described Sweetgreen as a “refueling station.” Tolentino narrated the excruciating alienation of its expedited salad assembly line, where customers dictate their preferences and workers comply, an interaction conducted with minimal interaction.

Si created an edifice similar to those in Sweetgreen stores for mobile order customers.

Si reiterated some of these observations, which he collected surreptitiously in the guise of a customer at multiple real locations across the city. “I observed burnout and exhaustion and the monotonous nature of their work: ‘How much salad dressing do you want?’ and ‘Do you want bread?’ It’s the same question over and over. Nobody really wants to be there, and the customers and the server are trying to avoid eye contact, because everyone knows it’s awkward,” he said.

But while Tolentino focused her Sweetgreen analysis predominantly on the concerns of women who belong to the professional-managerial class — how Sweetgreen catalyzes their workday and keeps their bodies close to a cultural ideal — Si’s interest lies in the experience of blue-collar service workers and their place in a system of racial capitalism. People of color, disproportionately black and brown workers, are racialized into positions of servility, where they are asked to play a repetitive and mechanical part that reinforces white hegemony, Si’s installation suggests.

Some visitors dropped by befuddled, wondering how they could order salads.

Si’s installation also urges viewers to think about how the artistic movement of Minimalism has been co-opted by corporate outfits today. Minimalism in furniture and design, Si says, has “become connected to power and money.” “It’s very expensive to collect minimalism,” he adds. That minimalist aesthetic, Si says, is “jarring in juxtaposition to staff wearing that Sweetgreen shirt and the hat.”

Having successfully deconstructed the Sweetgreen brand, “Sweet Green” has been dismantled, though its conceptual provocations remain.

Performers — including one in the role of manager and several in the roles of employees — volleyed “sweet!” “green!” chants back and forth to each other.

Around 20 people came in asking for salads every day during the piece’s run. Some became agitated when they were informed that no salads were available. On opening night, some “White dude” even suggested that he would organize a protest against Sweetgreen moving to the neighborhood, Si said. The absurdity of the man’s Sweetgreen NIMBYism forced Si into an unlikely defensive posture: “Like chill dude! This isn’t even happening. But that reaction itself — they’re so not in on the joke.”

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