The Sweetgreen story begins, as so many businesses do, with a handful of people who refused to settle for the status quo. In 2007, Georgetown University undergrads Nicolas Jammet, Jonathan Neman, and Nathaniel Ru found themselves frustrated by the scarcity of fast, healthy meal options. So they decided to solve the problem themselves by launching a farm-to-table, fast-casual salad restaurant. Now, after nearly nine years, the company has brought in over $95 million in venture funding, expanded to more than 40 locations, and employs over 1,700 people — all with a focus on culture and values at its core. We spoke with co-founder Jammet about what is behind the rise of the company, the future of business, and how to engage with younger generations as a brand.
What has been the most critical element of Sweetgreen’s success in scaling so far?
Nicolas Jammet: The most critical element has truly been understanding the value of building an incredible team — trying to build a team of people who really believe in the mission and are really aligned in terms of values. Early on, the three of us realized that if we wanted to build a really sustainable business, we were going to have to build one of the best teams in the country, a team like we’ve never seen before, and, to be quite honest, hire people who are smarter than us. We really wanted to hire people who believe in this mission but bring different things to the table. Our focus on this team and our culture has really been a driving force in our success.
What are the practices that you guys use to ensure that Sweetgreen is a great place to work and that your team is really walking the talk as well?
NJ: First and foremost, everything is centered around our purpose and our values. We make sure that everyone who joins the team understands those values and makes decisions every day based on those values. We have these five core values
[1) Win, win, win (company, customer, community), 2) Think sustainably, 3) Keep it real, 4) Add the sweet touch, and 5) Make an impact.]
Values are everything. Second, communication is one of the most important parts of our business; understanding clear communication, setting expectations, and making sure that people understand what they need from each other and themselves and how to work incredibly with each other.
Finally, we try to create a culture where people are learning, contributing, developing, and happy. We want folks to be really connected to the mission, and we want them to work hard. A lot of the work we have done on our culture has helped our people work with intention and live with intention. We focus on everything from the way people learn and develop to meditation, which is now a pretty big part of our culture. A bunch of folks from the company meditate, and we brought in a teacher to really help with that practice. It’s one small way that we do it, but we try to really make sure that we create an incredible workplace and culture for people to feel really valuable and like they’re doing work that matters.
You guys don’t have any plans to franchise. Could you tell us about that decision and how your investors feel about it?
NJ: Yes, we don’t have any plans to franchise, and all of our stores are company-owned. We have spent a lot of time building this brand that really is about community, our network of farmers, and the supply chain, and we believe the best way for us to grow and scale this is to do it ourselves. It’s something we want to own and really control. When you think of franchising food, it’s really tough to scale true intimacy with the community and the kind of work we do around building relation- ships with our farmers. For us, those are the pillars of our business — it’s what our business is built on and we really believe that we want to maintain and build it ourselves.
What advice do you have for mission-aligned entrepreneurs in terms of raising capital and finding mission-aligned investors?
NJ: It’s really an exciting place to be right now because there are so many more conscious investors out there that are investing in things that, ten years ago, never would have received attention. There’s so much investment in food, food tech, and just agriculture in general. The greater world, including investors, is starting to see the opportunity to really change the food system. You can create a real business that is pro table that is also creating incredible change.
Also, just as it is incredibly important to really spend time getting to know your team and to be aligned on values, it’s just as important to do that with your investors and shareholders to really make sure that you’re hopefully aligned on the vision, mission, and purpose of what you do. Make sure that the investors you interact with understand that you are on the same page.
You guys are all Millennials. What do you think is important to this generation, and what do brands need to do in order to attract and engage with more Millennials?
NJ: We live in this world where everyone is obsessed with talking about Millennials. I think it’s exciting because it’s not just what the Millennial generation is specifically; it’s the mindset that they’ve created that has really extended past the specific definition of who a Millennial is. Consumers today want to know more about the products and brands that they’re interacting with, and with that comes the need for transparency from brands. Consumers want to feel good about the choices that they’re making, and they can only do that if there is transparency.
With that responsibility comes this reality that you can’t just talk the talk anymore. You have to walk the walk. That is incredible for brands and companies that are doing the right things; it’s a scary change for some companies that aren’t. This new mindset is really pushing companies to be more transparent and take great action. It’s an exciting time, and I don’t think it’s a trend. And it’s not just this generation; all generations are going to require transparency from the brands and companies they interact with. It’s really changing the way companies are growing, building, and evolving.
What is giving you hope for the future?
NJ: From when we opened to today, people view the whole food space really differently. There’s a lot of opportunity there. There are a lot of people who understand the greater problem now more than they ever have. More and more, people want to work in food and become part of the solution. I think that’s very different than it was eight years ago.
I’ll give you an example: I was speaking at a class at Berkeley last week and they asked the 400 or 500 students in the room, “Who here wants to work in food?” Almost 50 percent of the people said yes. If you had asked that question a few years ago, that would not have been true. The transparency around the problems of what is actually going on in the food world has created more opportunities and a lot more engagement for people to become part of the solution. People are starting to realize how critical food is to everything we do. Food is health; food is everything. It’s really exciting to see this momentum shift, and not just this Millennial mindset — the whole world is starting to get excited about changing food.