Just months after graduating from Georgetown University’s undergraduate School of Business, three young guys set out to revolutionize the fast food business with Sweetgreen, a Farm-to-Table salad chain—and they succeeded.
Nathaniel Ru, Nicolas Jammet, and Jonathan Neman grew the business with the intention of pursuing their passion for entrepreneurship with the purpose of creating something beneficial to communities. The Washington-based chain opened their flagship store in Georgetown in 2007 before branching off to more than 60 locations in California, New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington D.C. What is even more remarkable is that they were able to re-market the idea of a salad from something that was seen as boring, bland, and expensive to something that is healthy, filling, and delicious at an affordable price.
With initial seed money from their families, Ru, and his co-founders have now created a company that is a VC darling, completing several rounds of funding to over $95 million. The keys to their success, Ru says, has to do with they way they entered the market and chose store locations. For example, when they opened their first store in New York, rather than choosing a location surrounded by several techs and media companies swarmed by chains like Chipotle, Sweetgreen opted to open at 28th and Broadway: a chic neighborhood. Next, they opened in other affluent and hip neighborhoods in Williamsburg and Tribeca. The design of the store is just as important as the food that is being served, says Ru. In his words, Sweetgreen is designed like an Apple store: upon stepping inside, a customer is welcomed with clean, seamless designs and a friendly team. The first thing a customer sees is a large open kitchen with fresh ingredients arranged in an orderly fashion; being transparent about their business practices is important to customers to get their trust and increase and maintain a customer base.
Sweetgreen has tweaked some practices over the years. First, instead of having an assembly-like process, each customer is served one-on-one. While this may take more time, it improves the accuracy of the ordering process. Second, there is an option to order in-store or with the app. If ordering with the phone app, there is a separate line that customers enter to pick up their personalized order they made via the app. Ru and his team also spent a significant amount of time working on the visual appeal of the food photography to giving customers a sense that they are in the store when they order on their phones.
Where does Sweetgreen get its ingredients? The team meets with farmers to determine a few things before meeting with landlords and creating a contract. Rather than requesting the farmers to grow a particular vegetable, they ask what is currently being grown and grows well. This practice has resulted in Sweetgreen introducing customers to non-traditional vegetables they would never have eaten like broccoli greens, which look like lettuce but are healthier.
Nathaniel Ru and his cofounders, as mentioned earlier, care about passion and purpose. They celebrate this idea with annual “sweetlife” festivals, bringing together good music, great food and a community of people who all share the same principles in life.