How Sweetgreen Brought Healthy and Delicious to Busy Lunchers

Nathaniel Ru to speak at PSFK conference on building healthy and sustainable restaurants

When trying to find somewhere to eat, there is a common dilemma: You can find healthy, quick, or affordable—pick two. During our flagship conference May 13, PSFK is excited to welcome someone who decided there had to be a better choice.

Almost nine years ago, Nathaniel Ru and his two business partners, Jonathan Neman and Nick Jammet, decided to create a restaurant that was all three along with being sustainable and scalable. The result was sweetgreen, a fast-casual restaurant that now has 40 locations nationwide. We caught up with Nathaniel before he takes our stage in May to ask a few questions about his success.

In the nine years sweetgreen has been in existence, it has grown from one healthy lunch location to a lifestyle brand that includes a music and food festival. To what do you attribute the success of sweetgreen?

It really starts with our core values. It’s our filter for decision making. Every decision we make, from hiring, sourcing, and even what artists we choose for our music festival goes through the filter of the core values, and they’re a gut-check to make sure we’re doing the right thing.

1) Win, Win, Win: Create solutions where the company, the customer, and the community all win.

2) Think Sustainably: Make decisions that will last longer than you will. We focus on the root cause, and solve real problems.

3) Keep it Real: Serve real food, communicate with transparency and cultivate genuine relationships.

4) Make an Impact: Think smarter, work harder and do it together.

5) Add the Sweet Touch: Create meaningful connections everyday, from farm to patron, from our team to every guest.

How has sweetgreen changed as it has grown?

In the beginning, Nic, Jon and I shared a passion for creating a brand that made an impact, and we started simply by going straight to the farmer’s market and meeting farmers at their stands. Years later some of those initial connections we made are some of our strongest partners today.

We took that approach—building real relationships with real people—and we scaled it with every store and every market.  We think more about our people pipeline than our real estate pipeline. If we don’t have access to the right supply network or people, we will alter our pace of growth to solve those problems so we can execute the right way and be true to our mission. In other words, we think about how to multiply talent and cultivate leaders, and that drives our growth. Growth isn’t about a number for us, it’s a family.

What are some of the challenges you faced while creating a nutritious and sustainable restaurant?

Over the past few decades convenience has come at the price of nutrition and transparency, and fast food has disconnected consumers from ingredients and people who grow them. People want a different experience—and social responsibility—from the brands they support. In the food world, there used to be trade-offs, things that were considered mutually exclusive. Your business could be scalable but not sustainable. Your food could be delicious but not healthy.

How did sweetgreen work to bring these previously contradictory ideas together and deliver healthy and responsible meals?

We believe food tastes best when it’s local and in season. From the seed to the store, we’re involved in every step of the supply chain, working with partners we consider family. Our recipes are intentionally simple. We make everything from scratch in each sweetgreen every day, using produce delivered that morning. Simply put, we follow mother nature’s lead.

How has technology helped you grow the brand?

We believe in constant innovation and evolution.  Technology is a big part of how we bridge the gap between health and convenience. In January of 2016, we launched a mobile app with the goal of mirroring the sweetgreen in-store experience and merged online ordering, mobile payment, and rewards. Optimizing online ordering and in-store pickup allows us to feed more people in existing stores, while also growing our footprint in new communities on both coasts. It took us over a year to build the app, and now we have an internal tech team who can handle ongoing innovation in-house, which will help us keep momentum.

What can we have to look forward to from your talk?

A perspective on innovation by going back to the basics of human connection. At sweetgreen, we put a lot of thought and effort into cultivating community through genuine human experiences, and I will talk about how crucial that is to the future of retail and experience design.


food / nutrition
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