Good food, fast food: the Sweetgreen story

A quest for healthy fast food led three business school graduates to a successful concept. Sue Holaday examines the ethos behind Sweetgreen

Three first-generation young Americans, inspired by their families’ drive to succeed and fulfil the traditional American dream, are creating an organic farm-to-table-based, quick-service concept with a chain of 20 Sweetgreen stores that today branch out from Washington DC and up the Northeast corridor.

As graduate business school students at Georgetown University, they were tired of the typical fast-food options and came up with a business plan for the type of quick-service restaurant they wanted to see become more prevalent. Sometimes, when you can’t find what you’re looking for, you just have to create it, and that’s what they did.

Bright and inquiring, they turned their dream into a successful reality, and in the process created a corporate culture in which team members share their passion for creating food that connects diners with its sources.

“You don’t teach that hustle,” says Nicolas Jammet, whose parents, Rita and André, operated La Caravelle, a beloved haute cuisine restaurant in New York for the better part of two decades before closing in 2004.

Like Jammet, his co-founders, Nathaniel Ru and Jonathan Neman “saw the same business hustle” in their families while growing up. “All of our parents were immigrants.” Three months out of school in 2007, they opened the first Sweetgreen in Georgetown in a 560 sq ft space.

“We wanted to create something of value to give back to the community,” says Jammet. It was a celebration of an attitude toward food that he calls “traceable, transparent, and feel good”, with the goal of delivering a healthy, tasty and eco-friendly option. “We want to connect people through food.”

Sweetgreen quickly drew a cult following and, within three years, started up Sweetlife Festival with a small group of musicians in its second location’s parking lot in DC. Since then, the festival has become the area’s largest music and food festival, with cutting-edge performers and attracting 20,000 attendees.

Sweetgreen founders (from left) Nathaniel Ru, Jonathan Neman and Nicolas Jammet

“We wanted to get people to think about healthy eating in a different way,” says Jammet. At the same time, the trio sought to build a team with a passion for healthy fare, engaged in a corporate culture dedicated to changing people’s eating habits.

“We have an incredible staff,” says Jammet. He wants them to help people change their food decisions by encouraging them to choose “craveable, cool and healthy foods” and to realise that those concepts are not mutually exclusive. He and his
co-founders believe experiences can be “both meaningful and fun, hip and wholesome, and that business practice can combine style and substance while at the same time being mutually beneficial to the company and the community it serves”.

By way of example, they cite a programme to work with fourth and fifth graders in neighbourhood schools, teaching them to eat healthily. A new mobile payment and rewards app lets guests earn redeemable dollars at Sweetgreen outlets, with 1% of dollars spent donated to local charities, including those that promote healthy eating in schools.

Their growth since the first tiny store has taken them from Washington, DC to neighbouring Maryland, Washington and Philadelphia, where two units are now in operation.

This year saw the expansion of Sweetgreen into Boston and New York, bringing the total number of outlets to 20. In Boston, the initial unit, several blocks from the finish line of the Boston Marathon, was fortunate in not incurring any damage from the bombing this spring.

“We felt we were part of it even though we hadn’t opened yet,” says Jammet. “If we’d been open, we all would have been out there. We decided to use our loyalty payment app to give 1% of our profits to The One Fund, Boston. On our Boston opening day we asked guests to pay what they wanted and all that day’s revenues went to that fund.”

The challenge in opening new stores, he says, is always “being equal to the biggest opportunity”. Today, he believes, the opportunity lies in changing America’s eating habits. “They’re just hungry for healthy foods and that ‘wanting to change’ attitude is incredible,” he says.

Jammet says diners are better educated about food choices and want to know where it comes from, demanding fresh, local, organic options. They’re also concerned with issues of sustainability, seeking to make the planet a better place. To that end, Sweetgreen is eco-friendly with compostable containers and utensils, recycled paper napkins and wildflower seeds embedded in the menus to take home and plant. Recycled wood throughout and wind energy power offsets are key parts of the eco-centric ethos along with a new food truck, Sweetflow, with green technology to power refrigeration and engine.

Next Step Design (NSD) FCSI, based in Annapolis, Maryland, and founded by J Russell Lebow Stillman in 1986, was involved early on in the prototype. Stillman, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who began his career in the dishroom at an Italian restaurant in 1972, and later had a restaurant equipment business, blends his broad knowledge of the industry as principal creative director and president of NSD.

Sweetgreen, he recalls, “was a fun project. It was a leader and very interesting. These guys have a huge amount of energy.”

The company did the initial design and several subsequent ones, developing a basic refinement of the first unit. “The others were more inline,” Stillman says, “and the spaces were easier to develop with a larger footprint. No one was doing anything like this at that time. It was a great idea.”

The initial 560 sq ft unit presented unique challenges because of the space limitations. “It was difficult,” Stillman recalls. “There were no hoods and we wound up with TurboChef ovens. You’re always struggling over making the space work to achieve good flow, nice food presentation and good public space. It’s hard working out the ‘yours and mine’ phase of a project, a form versus function kind of battle.”

The owners wanted an eco-friendly concept with their mission of building green and serving healthy foods made with the best ingredients, notes Stillman, adding that NSD usually does a prototype and four or five subsequent stores to “get the kinks out”.

Commenting on the newer units, he declares: “They’ll tear it up in New York. And they just had a major infusion of investor capital so I expect them to keep growing.”

In Manhattan, the green emphasis is carried out with wind energy offset credits for power, LED lighting, and lots of reclaimed wood, in the hope of raising the bar in sustainable practices for restaurants.

Sweetgreen director of store development Tim Noonan believes the kitchen equipment package should “best showcase and highlight our fresh, local and organic ingredients as we try to make healthy eating accessible for diners.”

In the new flagship stores in Boston and New York, the front line is “all about increasing speed of service and elevating those ingredients to differentiate us from the competition,” Noonan points out. As the customers go down the line, they see the warm grains in a crockpot, the cold well for tofu, vegan and vegetarian items, a space for crunch – almonds, pecans, tortilla chips – and crockpots with hot ingredients such as chicken. We have many vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free customers so we’re careful to avoid cross-contamination.

No two stores are exactly the same design, he adds. Since the beginning, Sweetgreen wanted to be “opening kitchens with a clean sightline so guests can see chefs pulling the roasted broccoli or the chicken out of the oven. Diners like to see that activity – cutting and prepping fresh daily and we think it’s both important and reassuring, carrying out our values of operating efficiently and having open communication between front and back of the house team members.”

Sweetgreen likes to keep updating, holding a design seminar for employees recently. “We’re still learning. In Boston, our sales have already exceeded our expectations. We always push the boundaries. We moved from the TurboChef to combi-therm convection ovens. We needed bigger ovens like Rational and Alto-Shaam steam ovens,” says Noonan. “We’re still looking for open air refrigeration and we’ve been looking at induction units and how they fit into fast casual operations.

We’re trying to highlight our local ingredients to customers monthly. Sometimes we tend to assume people know all these things, but we’re trying to improve our visual clues on the front line.”

Sue Holaday

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