Listen to the Nitty Gritty with sweetgreen here.
In nine short years, sweetgreen–founded in 2007 by Georgetown grads Nicolas Jammet, Jonathan Neman, and Nathaniel Ru–has gone from a singular 500-square-foot storefront in D.C. to a multi-million dollar company with over forty locations in seven states and growing. The fast casual salad chain, which bases its all-organic menu on seasonality, has been dubbed “the next Chipotle” on account of its skyrocketing growth and booming popularity. If you need proof, just walk past a sweetgreen at lunchtime and note the line snaking out the door and around the block.
When the threesome drew up their first business plan, still seniors in college with no previous experience running a company, their goal was simple: provide fresh and healthy food options for the local Georgetown community. Green as they were, the idea of entrepreneurship was something each was familiar with. All three are children of first-generation immigrants who came to own successful businesses in the States. Jammet’s parents ran the popular New York City restaurant La Caravelle until 2004. Neman’s family operates textile and real estate companies out of Los Angeles. And Ru, for his part, came from parents who dealt in the manufacturing and import worlds.
After raising $300,000 in capital for their first store, sweetgreen began to slowly expand, first throughout Washington D.C. and then across the East Coast. Two stores turned into four. Four stores turned into a great deal more than that. With growth came the obvious realization they would need to start thinking about scaling the business. For sweetgreen, quality is paramount, and to avoid diluting their core ethos, it was established that each new market would be looked at in isolation of the others: What grows here? Who are the closest farmers? What can we bring to the table? The result of this localized approach–while arguably more work on the backend–is an uncompromising menu that feels bespoke and, frankly, natural to its respective environment.
sweetgreen goes far beyond the food they serve. Its three founders have been diligent in cultivating a real lifestyle around the brand. It’s in the design of the stores (light and airy). It’s in the music playing overhead (Pitchfork-worthy). It’s in the playful pop culture puns (“Beets don’t kale my vibe”). The company feels grounded and real and personable, appealing to a demographic of young eaters who crave a sense of belonging as much as they do a healthy meal. To foster that sense of community, Sweetgreen often partners with relevant brands for events, hosts small dinner parties for the local community, and, once a year, puts on the Sweetlife music festival near their old home turf. From putting Grimes on the stage of the Merriweather Post Pavilion to collaborating with Dan Barber to create a hyper-sustainable salad, each alignment pushes the Sweetgreen mission forward.
For first-time business owners as young as they are (each has recently crossed the threshold into their thirties), the way the three think about business is preternaturally sophisticated. Everything is considered and deliberate. Attention is paid not just to the core product, but to how they develop their team, how they create a company culture, how they manage supply chain. They think about the future of food–how it will impact them and how they can impact it–by assessing the landscape and predicting changes that will happen in the coming years. Their strategy has so far paid off, though you won’t catch any smugness or arrogance coming from them; the three are uncommonly friendly and kind at their core–something so often easier said than done.
In the last year, sweetgreen has moved headquarters to Los Angeles, where it positions itself closer to what will likely be a rapidly growing market for the company. The change is integral to its strategy in developing its presence along the West Coast and working its way to becoming a truly national brand. It doesn’t seem too far-flung an idea; go on sweetgreen’s website and you’ll see a lot of the words “coming soon” next to future locations. The next Chipotle? Maybe in numbers. But when it comes to flavor, passion, and purpose, sweetgreen does it one better.
To find out more about what has made this company so successful, Bond Street co-founder David Haber sat down to talk to Jammet, Neman, and Ru for our second installment of the Nitty-Gritty. Have a listen below.