Brands that spark conversations and lead cultural movements earn a place in consumers’ lives. By connecting people with ways to live better and act on causes that matter to them, you can form relationships that go beyond financial transactions. Sweetgreen is a powerful example of a brand marrying purpose with profit to scale growth and impact.
“Our mission is to connect more people to real food and build healthier communities by doing that,” Nathaniel Ru, cofounder and Chief Brand Officer of Sweetgreen, tells We First. The fast casual food chain built on the salad bowl has demonstrated impressive growth, showcasing over 100 locations across the United States. With increased consumer awareness and demand for healthy foods Ru predicts, “a lot more growth ahead of us than behind us.”
As Sweetgreen’s business grows, so does its impact. By making healthy, affordable and environmentally sustainable food easily accessible, Sweetgreen has married its mission with its margins. The purpose-driven brand offers insights for other businesses looking to Lead With We.
Nathaniel started the company with two of his Georgetown classmates, Nicolas Jammet and Jonathan Neman, after they graduated college. “We found a little 560 square foot shack just off of campus,” Ru recalls. “We took a chance to start a restaurant. We had no experience, were extremely over budget and delayed.”
The founders learned by doing. They built relationships with local farmers. “The original thesis was really, ‘How do we make it ingredient driven and not recipe driven?’,” he says. That resonated with the college crowd and the first restaurant was blooming.
The growth spurt was stunted after Sweetgreen opened a second “flagship location” in Dupont circle. “We ended up spending a lot of money and time building it out. When we opened that restaurant, we had zero customers,” the cofounder says.
There was a Starbucks across the street with tons of foot traffic. To get people to cross the road, the college grads bought a speaker and played music outside the store on the weekends. “It kind of worked!” Ru says. “It got people from that side of the street over to try some samples outside. Now that store does really well.”
Weekend DJ sets turned into a block party in the parking lot and then expanded into the Sweetlife Festival. The gathering ran for 5 years and attracted about 25 thousand people annually to see the likes of Kendrick Lamar, The Weekend , The Strokes and others. “We wanted to shift the paradigm. You can go to a rock show and still eat healthy,” Ru says. Essentially, the brand is bringing people together around music and food.
Another way Sweetgreen invests in community is via the Sweetgreen in Schools program. Sweetgreen started in Boston, New York and D.C. with supplemental curriculum and introduced elementary schoolers to things like nutrition, farming and taste. The program has expanded. The healthy franchise has committed $1 million to FoodCorps’ work providing youth with access to and education about healthy foods.
By making it easy for kids to eat healthy foods and educating them about what’s good for their body, Sweetgreen is investing in the next generation of consumers. “Education isn’t only in the academic sense,” Ru says. “It’s also about how you nudge people along the customer journey and continue that conversation.”
Another pillar of Sweetgreen’s community is its employees. To foster unity and culture, Sweetgreen follows six core values. “We try to use our core values when making decisions for everything from hiring to performance management,” Ru says. “What makes somebody successful at Sweetgreen, whether you work in the restaurants or in the corporate office, is that you have to be connected to the mission.”
One example of Sweetgreen’s culture in action is the “Sweet Talk.” Before each shift, the team has a brief meeting, “like a team huddle,” Ru says. “We believe in the idea of servant leadership. Our managers are kind of coaches as well as students of the community. Some of the best ideas at Sweetgreen come from our team members in our restaurants.”
By leading with values and holding space for innovation, Sweetgreen is cultivating corporate culture that resonates throughout the organization. This leads to an increased sense of purpose and commitment from the team.
Sweetgreen’s internal and external network are built on shared values. “The biggest challenge is proving you can scale healthy, fast food and real food,” Ru says. “What keeps us up at night is how to create intimacy at scale. It doesn’t just relate to social impact it also relates to the food we serve, our team and customer service.” One of the ways Sweetgreen does that is by offering dishes with regional and seasonal ingredients like the citrus shrimp and avocado bowl only available in Miami or the fall menu.
Technology is also an increasingly integral component for bowing food service companies. Technology can help scale intimacy. Sweetgreen integrates technology with initiatives like its app and the Outpost program.
While useful, technology must be integrated with a grain of salt. “At Sweetgreen there’s this tension and balance between staying ahead of the curve on technology, but remembering that we are a food company first and a technology company second,” Ru says. By leading with values that run through culture, technology and product, Sweetgreen meets that challenge.
Another aspect of scaling intimacy is storytelling. To help promote sustainable foods, Sweetgreen partners with individuals and organizations that add authenticity to the company’s messaging. “It always comes back to how you integrate the mission and impact into these campaigns,” Ru says.
A great example of Sweetgreen’s genuine approach to marketing healthy and eco-friendly products with “style and substance” is its partnership with David Chang focused on the benefits of eating kelp. “It’s not something that you would order at Sweetgreen or in a salad normally, but it has one of the best regenerative qualities.” Chung, who’s Korean, grew up eating the ocean-grown green. “If we bring David into the conversation and we create more fun, engaging marketing around it, we can make it part of mainstream culture.”
By working with partners that bring a unique perspective and approach to real healthy foods, Sweetgreen is able to present alternative dishes in an appealing way while addressing issues like sustainability and climate.
Like so many businesses, Sweetgreen has had to adapt to the pandemic. “COVID-19 has forced us to become more entrepreneurial. It’s made us think like we were back to that first restaurant,” the cofounder says.
In response to the times, Sweetgreen launched the Plates initiative. “It’s our answer to dinner,” Ru says. The new program expands upon Sweetgreen’s traditional offerings of salad to include offerings like Hot Honey Chicken and Tofu Steak and Sweet Potatoes. “We wanted to pilot it early in this interesting time and see how people would respond,” he says. “We realize that we can do things much faster.”
The food chain also implemented safety measures inside and outside. Actions include contactless purchasing, app updates, mandatory facemasks and social distancing.
In addition to keeping customers and employees safe, Sweetgreen is leveraging its business for impact during these challenging times.
The brand is pivoting its outpost program, which offers free delivery catering services to offices on a tray, to form The Impact Outpost. “We thought about how we could take that same business model and deliver food for free to the frontline,” Nathaniel explains.
To do that, Sweetgreen partnered with Chef José Andrés and the World Central Kitchen. ”Together, we’ve delivered almost 400,000 meals for free to people on the front line.” By expanding on existing programs and building new partnerships, Sweetgreen is scaling impact and joining cultural conversations.
Building A Movement:
While Sweetgreen’s social good initiatives and purposeful foundation make it an impact leader, no person or organization can address the world’s problems alone. To truly move the needle, companies must work together to form and advance the movement towards healthy and sustainable lifestyles.
Sweetgreen walks the talk by considering its environmental footprint in packaging decisions and staying accountable to its sustainability goals via third party verifications.
Although they do measure impact, Ru says, “It’s less about metrics and more about how we create conversation around it.”
In today’s world, purpose has become competitive. Some companies would be skeptical of competitors addressing similar issues.
“I actually think that more awareness around plant-based foods, healthy eating and transparency around farming, whether it’s us or somebody else, is a win for everyone,” Sweetgreen’s Chief Brand Officer says. “Whole Foods was a big first mover in that category. They’ve kind of paved the way in terms of getting people to think this way. You see a lot of more fast casual brands starting that as well.”
Our dream is to be the official sponsor of the Olympics instead of McDonald’s. We have some work to do. But those are things that are really going to change the conversation and make it more mainstream.”
Three lessons for founders from Nathaniel Ru:
Sweetgreen’s ability to weave impact throughout its core business is a prime example of how to drive growth through purpose. The company’s cofounder offers three pieces of advice for business owners and executives on how to scale your mission and bottom line.
- “The small things are the big things.” Pay attention to the details and over deliver.
- “Trust is earned in drops and lost in buckets.” Follow through.
- “You don’t have to hit a home run in the beginning. Choose whatever business you’re building and focus on the mission. You’ll figure it out.”