Those fried chicken sandwiches that are popping up on menus everywhere all share several common elements: a crispy-coated chicken breast, crunchy pickles and a signature sauce. These elements came together in a lightbulb moment for Katelyn Shannon, culinary R&D chef for Sweetgreen, as she started working on ideas for the fast casual’s winter menu.
“When our Buffalo Chicken Bowl went on the core menu, we wanted to introduce a seasonal item that would bring in new users; something people were familiar with,” she said. The wildly popular fried chicken sandwich fit the bill, but Sweetgreen doesn’t do sandwiches and the menu veers toward healthier items.
But Shannon was convinced she could adapt the sandwich’s flavors and textures to a salad that would meet Sweetgreen’s sustainability, seasonality and sourcing goals. Cross-utilization of existing ingredients is also a priority, and that’s where the crispy rice comes in.
Working on a previous R&D project for a Thai salad, Shannon wanted to add a crispy component to complement the cashew dressing. “I got really close using various nuts and seeds, but I always wanted to put a cover crop on the menu,” she said. Cover crops improve the health of the soil and turn a profit for small farmers—two benefits that fit with Sweetgreen’s sustainability mission.
Shannon’s inspiration came about in the supermarket cereal aisle when she spotted a box of Rice Krispies. “I decided to go in that direction,” she said, and after some trial and error, she created a crunchy brown rice and sorghum mix. Sorghum is not only a cover crop, it acts as a natural pesticide, Shannon discovered in her research.
Sweetgreen sources the rice from a California rice company and the sorghum from another U.S. supplier; both come in already crisped. Shannon worked with the R&D team at a vendor partner to come up with a seasoning blend. “We tried 32 samples before we got it right,” she said. “The seasoning not only flavors the ingredient, it makes it crispier and extends the shelf life.”
Sweetgreen’s blackened chicken is a staple of several bowls and a customer favorite, so it made a good choice for the new salad. Plus, the chicken’s signature blend of seasonings is similar to that used in the coating of some fried chicken recipes. Several of the sandwiches recently introduced also have a topping of slaw, so Shannon added shredded cabbage and carrots to the bowl “as a nod” to that element.
Next up: the pickles. “American cooks have long relied on preserved foods in winter,” said Shannon. “And each market has a different pickler, so we were able to commit to local sourcing.”
The pickles are put on top of the salad and blended into the dressing as well. Shannon went with a remoulade dressing that combines mayonnaise, yogurt, hot sauce and the chopped pickles. Blackened chicken is Cajun in origin and remoulade shares the same roots, so the two make a natural pairing, she said.
Before the bowl was finalized, Shannon tried adding a drizzle of honey to bring some sweetness to the spiciness of the Cajun flavors—“kind of like honey fried chicken,” she said. “But if one of the team members was a little heavy-handed with the honey, it would make the salad too sweet, so we added a little honey to the dressing instead.”
The Crispy Chicken Salad is finished off with two scoops of crispy rice “because the crunch is so important,” said Shannon. “We debated adding one scoop or two, but with two, you get some crunch in very bite.”
The Crispy Chicken Salad rolled out to all 119 Sweetgreen locations in January. If ordering for delivery or takeout, purchasers can get the crispy rice packed separately so it stays crunchy.
Customers can also add the crispy rice to any customized order as one of their four free toppings. “More than 50% of our guests customize,” said Shannon.
As she works on menu introductions for spring, the chef is going to tap other preserved ingredients. “Surprisingly, spring is always the toughest season for seasonality,” said Shannon. While root vegetables are plentiful in winter and summer provides a lot of bounty, “in spring, we only have local asparagus, radishes and snap peas,” she said.