Meet steelhead.

One fish, two fish, meet our new fish.

When we’re developing or refining a product on our menu, the biggest thing we consider is taste — first and foremost, a product has to be delicious. Of course, we make thoughtful decisions about everything at sweetgreen, but for food to be successful, it needs to be tasty. Then, it has to be healthy. Lastly, it has to be sourced in a way we’re proud of.

This season, we’re excited to introduce steelhead in every single sweetgreen. You may not have heard of steelhead before, and that’s precisely why we’re pumped about it. It’s not only delicious, but it’s a shining example of our food ethos at work. Or, seafood ethos, as it were.

That’s right — in addition to our food ethos, we also developed a seafood ethos. Because as we were vetting seafood options, we found we needed more specific criteria to make the right choice for sweetgreen. The seafood ethos is that sweetgreen supports the sustainability of our oceans by providing delicious, healthy seafood that is:

  • caught by fishermen with traditional practices that sustain wild populations

OR

  • farmed in aquaculture systems with innovative practices that maintain or improve the health of the environment.

We feel that both wild and farmed systems play an important role in feeding the world 300 billion pounds of seafood annually, so we’ve refrained from committing to one or the other. We identify the best option for each species on a case-by-case basis and require traceability. The best option is the win-win-win:

  • a win for the consumer is a product that’s nutritious, delicious, consistent and versatile
  • a win for the company is a premium product that’s consistently executable in stores and drives purchases
  • a win for the community is a product that preserves species, is environmentally conscious and humane

So, back to steelhead. We started exploring fish menu options not just because people want it, but because we believe its a great part of a healthy and balanced diet, thanks to the lean proteins. Back in 2014, we started researching sources for salmon, knowing it’s a popular item with obvious demand. We sourced farmed salmon from Verlasso in Patagonia, Chile. At the time, it was the best option we found — it was the first and only farm-raised salmon to receive the “good alternative” rating from Monterey Bay Aquarium, and it was “raised harmoniously with the ocean.” But we didn’t love that we had to get it all the way from Patagonia — it’s not exactly local. The salad was popular, though, and it was clear that people liked a premium protein like salmon. When we put the OMG Omega salad on the signature menu in LA, we opted for a more local supplier, Canada’s Creative Salmon, the first North American salmon farming company to be certified organic.

We were one step, or rather thousands of miles, closer to the right solution, but we challenged ourselves to go even further and think about this more philosophically. We decided if we wanted to make seafood a bigger part of our menu, we had to become students and develop a well thought-out ethos specific to seafood, which you read above. As we dove into books like Dan Barber’s The Third Plate and Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish, and worked to refine sweetgreen’s core offering, we challenged ourselves to avoid the four big fish that are over-consumed — salmon, cod, tuna and bass. We wanted to be part of the solution, not the problem. And we wanted to teach consumers to take a step back and really think about their food — not just what’s in their bowls, but the entire food system. In the end, it came down to something we’ve all known for a while — a universal truth that’s consoled (or maybe not?) countless broken-hearted people:

There are other fish in the sea.

Bill Clark, farm manager at Pacific Aquaculture, checks on the steelhead he’s growing. (photo: Masha Maltsava)

That said, we’d like you to meet steelhead.

Last year, we connected with the team at Pacific Seafood that farm-raises steelhead in the Columbia River in Washington. We thoroughly vetted it and decided it was a true win-win-win. Delicious? Yes. Healthy? Yes. Sustainable? Yes. Big Four Fish? Proudly no.

Now, you’re probably wondering what steelhead is and asking yourself some questions about it and why we’re serving it. Here’s our attempt at pre-empting them.

The Bento Bowl, featuring roasted steelhead.

How’s it raised?

Pacific Seafood raises the fish in 3 phases — there’s a hatchery, nursery and grow-out phase. And this all happen in pens within the Columbia River in upstate Washington, a beautiful place with pristine water. The steelhead is fed fish meal (herring and anchovy), and the steelhead is free of antibiotics, hormones and pesticides. Pacific Seafood is the first salmon or steelhead farm to be BAP-certified, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium granted them a “Best Choice” rating. But maybe the coolest fact about steelhead is that it’s raised in an area of the Columbia River that’s between two dams, in an aquatic environment that’s been adversely affected by the damming. The nature of the steelhead farm is that it actually replenishes some of the nutrients that have been lost since the damming, thus benefitting surrounding wildlife. And this is a big part of the steelhead sustainability story.

So, is it salmon?

Ok, get ready, because this is confusing and there’s a lot of misinformation on the internet. While part of the family salmonidae (which includes salmon, trout, chars, freshwater whitefishes and graylings), steelhead is a species of trout. Because of this classification, its lifecycle and its look and taste, it is often confused with salmon. You might even see it in a fish market as “steelhead salmon” (trust us, we’ve seen it). But steelhead tends to be a little darker in color, with more Omega-3 fatty acids and a milder, more meaty flavor than Atlantic salmon. We like to think of it as salmon’s sexier, more environmentally friendly cousin.

Why haven’t I heard of this fish before?

We asked this very question of the folks at Pacific Seafood. They laughed and said simply that they’ve been bad marketers. (For what it’s worth, people who grew up in the Pacific Northwest are very familiar with steelhead, and it’s a hobby to fly-fish for steelhead.) One, it’s a regional fish, native to the Columbia River. Two, people often assume it is a kind of salmon, like King salmon or Atlantic salmon, and some places just call it salmon. (Which means there’s a chance you may have ordered “salmon” on a menu and actually eaten steelhead.) Three, a sustainable food system shouldn’t have a star — diversity is the key to a healthy food system. So while companies like Pacific Seafood are farming millions of pounds of steelhead every year, the fish is still somewhat niche and won’t reach the volume of farmed salmon.

As we learned more about steelhead, we kept coming back to the statistic that the world’s waters contain 30,000 fish species, and yet we tend to see the same fish on restaurant menus. The way we’ve been consuming salmon, bass, tuna and cod is simply not sustainable, and we’re going to have to embrace some of these other “fish in the sea” if our society wants to be eating fish in 100 years.

We hope we’ve answered some questions about steelhead and that you understand our reasoning for putting it on the menu, and we hope you give it a try. Let’s be part of the solution, together.*

*And if you want to support the sustainable seafood movement at home, check out direct-to-consumer companies like Dock to Dish and bookmark the Seafood Watch site.

If you have questions about steelhead or our sourcing decision, shoot us a note at ama@sweetgreen.com (ama = ask me anything). We’ll happily nerd out over this with you.

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