Grabbing a salad for lunch used to be the ultimate guilt-free choice. But amid recent headlines about the plastic-waste crisis and the limitations of recycling, it’s become less of a feel-good meal. There are those disposable plastic bowls. And plastic lids. And plastic forks. So much plastic, Burger King’s paper wrappers might seem preferable.
But Just Salad is aiming to return the takeout salad to the realm of the totally virtuous, with a sweeping focus on sustainability that’s unusual for restaurants of any size. In the past few months, the fast-casual chain — which has 28 locations in NYC — has expanded its reusable-bowl program, set a zero-waste goal, planned the rollout of a composting program and created an innovative executive job whose remit is to reduce the company’s environmental impact.
“The nature of a quick-service restaurant is that you have a lot of carry-out traffic, and a lot of disposable items,” says Janani Lee, Just Salad’s first chief sustainability officer, who was promoted in December from director of its supply chain. “We’ve been at the forefront of sustainability with our reusable bowl program, and we’re building on that to reduce waste even further.”
The goals are ambitious: Just Salad aims to be zero waste by 2022. They’re developing a compostable takeout bowl and looking at ways to reduce utensil discards. Ingredients are going under the microscope to see if they can be made more sustainable. A composting program for kitchen waste, piloted this spring in one location, will roll out to every New York City restaurant by the end of the year.
Customer acceptance may have encouraged that accelerated schedule. The chain’s reusable-bowl program has been a hit: About 25 percent of customers participate. (The $1 bowls entitle purchasers to free toppings at each visit; their popularity has reduced landfill-bound plastic by about 75,000 pounds a year.) “It shows our guests really care about sustainability — that they would come to us with a reusable bowl rather than go anywhere else,” says Lee.
The company will next focus on those plastic utensils. Lee is exploring a reusable fork program, along with buying utensils made from alternative polymers. “We really want us to look at all of the plastics that we could have an impact on,” she says. “So we were looking at bioplastic alternatives for people who need an option. For people who are taking their salads back to the office or home, we’re encouraging them to use a reusable metal or plastic fork. And we’re planning to pilot a reusable fork that customers can buy at our stores.”
This Earth Day, each Just Salad location will give away 100 reusable bowls, first-come, first served. The chain is also selling a sustainability kit, which includes a “VIP” reusable bowl, S’well water bottle and tote bag for $39. That price also includes an immeasurable perk for any New Yorker at lunchtime: The ability to skip the line.