Sweetgreen founders and Georgetown McDonough School of Business alumni Jonathan Neman (B’07), Nicolas Jammet (B’07), and Nathaniel Ru (B’07) returned to campus April 16 for a conversation about their 12 years of success and how their mission to connect people to real food has grown beyond the salads they make.
Moderated by Will Finnerty (B’94), their former adjunct professor, and Alyssa Lovegrove, managing director, Georgetown Entrepreneurship, the event was presented by the Stanton Distinguished Leaders Series.
A Sweet Beginning
Today, Sweetgreen has nearly 100 locations across the United States and recently raised a $200 million Series H round that valued the company at more than $1 billion, officially making Sweetgreen a unicorn. The idea for Sweetgreen started on the Hilltop, where the three friends lamented the lack of healthy, affordable food choices on campus and off.
“We wanted to figure out how we could create something essentially for ourselves in the beginning,” Neman said. “We found this niche in the market where there was an opportunity to have something that was fresh and healthy, but also affordable and fast.”
“The best businesses are started by people trying to solve problems they have,” Jammet added.
Once they realized their idea might have legs, they wrote an initial seven-page business plan for a restaurant called Greens during their senior year. When they had trouble getting funding from a bank, they asked 200 friends and family members to invest, eventually raising $300,000 from 50 people.
The first storefront on M Street, NW, opened August 1, 2007, a mere two and a half months after Neman, Jammet, and Ru graduated. And their first major crisis occurred July 31, when during a 45-minute employee training at the shop, their apartment — located across the street — was robbed and Jammet’s laptop, with salad recipes, operation manuals, and architect renderings, was stolen.
“We stayed up all night recreating things, searching through emails… we just made it work, the party came, and we were ready,” Jammet said. “Aside from the lesson of backing up (your computer), that was one early lesson that no crisis is too big to overcome. We can definitely make it through anything.”
The Sweetgreen Brand and Importance of Technology
As Sweetgreen has grown, the founders have focused on their brand purpose, connecting people to real food, and expanded that notion beyond the salads they sell.
“The Sweetgreen brand is really a brand all around social impact. A lot of it was even inspired by the Jesuit community that we found here at Georgetown,” Ru said. “How do you not only be successful, but do good by doing that?”
Their Sweetgreen in Schools initiative, for example, has educated more than 9,000 students about healthy food and is now helping to recreate and reimagine the school cafeteria.
The company also has leveraged technology along the way, creating a mobile app — which boasts almost 2 million users and accounts for more than 50 percent of their sales — and, two years ago, putting all suppliers they work with on blockchain.
“I think today every company has to be a technology company,” Neman said. “For us, the most important thing about it is that it gives us a direct relationship to our customer.”
Data from the app, Neman said, helps inform purchasing decisions and ultimately will enable them to create personalized menus for customers. Meanwhile, data from the farmers with whom they work will give more information about their ingredients to customers.
“Very soon you’ll be able to see exactly when your kale was picked, at what farm, what was the temperature there, how far did it travel,” Neman said.
Creating a Sustainable Supply Chain
Sweetgreen’s relationships with its farmers and suppliers has been a core part of the company’s brand from the beginning.
“We wanted to create a place that could connect people to food and ultimately support a food system that needed to change,” Jammet said. “So as we built Sweetgreen, we built this food ethos that believed in building a fully transparent supply chain of real food that was unprocessed and most importantly craveable and delicious. … We had to create desire for this type of food.”
Sweetgreen has worked to minimize waste along their supply chain. When a broccoli farmer told them no one buys the broccoli leaves even though they’re as nutritionally dense and delicious as kale, Jammet said, the company created a salad around the ingredient. They got to introduce their customers to a new food, and the farmer got revenue for a product that typically went to waste.
On Failure and Growth
The founders gave advice to the crowd of mostly Georgetown students.
“We look for people who are open to failure and can learn quickly,” Neman said about building their team.
Neman also offered perspective on how the determination to overcome failure can lead to growth, even when it’s not linear.
“Sweetgreen’s story and most success stories look really pretty from the outside,” he said. “The reality is there are a ton of failures and near-death experiences and a lot of doubt. It’s being on the verge of bankruptcy and world domination at the same time, every single day. So many times it almost completely went away, and we almost gave up. It’s that resilience … of picking yourself up when you do fall, when you do fail.”