More than a decade ago, sweetgreen, the Washington D.C.-founded food establishment opened its doors creating a destination for Americans to enjoy simple, seasonal and healthy food, with a purpose. Since then, the brand has cultivated an admirable and differentiated brand identity, inspiring healthier communities by connecting people to real food.
I recently spoke with Nathaniel Ru, cofounder and chief brand officer of sweetgreen, to learn how purpose is ingrained in the brand’s DNA – and to uncover the recent partnerships sweetgreen pursued in an effort to propel their vision.
Aaron Kwittken: In your own words, can you share your founder story?
Nathaniel Ru: Nicolas, Jonathan and I met as freshmen at Georgetown University. When we started out, there were two choices: food that was fast, cheap and unhealthy or slow, expensive and fresh. We wanted to create a place where you didn’t have to sacrifice price for flavor or convenience. In 2007, we opened our first sweetgreen location - a 560 square foot shack down the street from campus. Fast forward, 11 years later and we’ve opened nearly 100 locations in eight states, have more than 3,500 team members and work with over 150 farmers across the country. Our mission today is the same as it was 11 years ago - to connect people to real food.
Kwittken: From a marketing communications perspective, what were the challenges early on in growing momentum of the brand?
Ru: In the beginning, we noticed that the food companies with the best marketing were always the most unhealthy. Our thesis was, ‘How can we use similar marketing tactics to tell the story of real, healthy food and make it a bigger part of the conversation?’ We also realized that simply telling people to eat their vegetables wasn’t going to work. We had to connect it to a lifestyle and to our customers passion points such as music, wellness and social impact. We looked outside our category to brands like Nike, Supreme and Patagonia who were leveraging culture and social impact in a way that reinforced their unique point of view. The challenge early on, was to change the mindset that we were just a “salad place” and that sweetgreen could stand for much more.
Kwittken: Can you tell me about the partnership with FoodCorps and why it aligns with sweetgreen’s mission? Why now?
Ru: Sweetgreen partnered with FoodCorps to help guide future generations to make healthier food choices as part of their re-imagining school cafeterias program. At sweetgreen, we have impacted more than 8,000 students to date with our own sweetgreen In Schools program, and this partnership allows us to nearly double that impact in one school year. Our mission is to inspire healthier communities by connecting people to real food - and future generations are crucial to this. Thirty million American students rely on school meals for nourishment every day, yet 10 million kids are on track to develop diet related diseases like Type 2 diabetes. It’s imperative we change the school food system, and having FoodCorps as our partner on this mission allows us to help even more kids gain access to healthy, fresh food at school.
FoodCorps has started to test concepts that will help re-imagine cafeterias at various pilot schools to learn what works and what doesn’t and collect real-time feedback from students. The experiences provide opportunities for students to have a voice in what their cafeteria experience and environment looks and feels like.
Kwittken: How did this partnership come about? Were you looking to partner with FoodCorps specifically or seeking to expand sweetgreen’s impact and the partnership formed organically?
Ru: We were drawn to working with FoodCorps because their superpower starts with food education. We admire the way they use their impact to drive towards larger systemic change in policy, culture, and the school food marketplace, and we wanted to join forces to bring about even more change. Sweetgreen will help to strengthen FoodCorps’ core programming and support FoodCorps’ work to re-envision school cafeterias using a human centered design approach to develop scalable, school cafeteria programming that both guides students to make healthier choices and creates a more welcoming, inclusive and joyful cafeteria experience. This marks a major step toward influencing the health of the millions of kids eating lunch every single day.
Kwittken: Sweetgreen has created a remarkable brand identity, serving as a destination for simple, seasonal, healthy, food. How has sweetgreen set itself apart from other healthy, fast casual food destinations?
Ru: It starts with our supply chain. We work with over 150 local farmers across the country to provide the highest quality real food at scale. We have spent countless hours investing in both meaningful relationships with growers but also the technology to serve their products across nearly 100 locations. From seed to store we are involved in every step of our supply chain which we believe makes for a better tasting end product. Second is our people - they are the most important ingredient. From our team members in our restaurants to the support staff at the Treehouse office, we believe in leaving customers better than we found them. Through our core values they are the ones that deliver great service daily.
Kwittken: How has sweetgreen built a transparent supply network? How do you continue to market this network to customers?
Ru: When we first started sweetgreen, we would purchase our ingredients from local farmers markets to ensure we were supporting farmers in our community and serving the best product. Not only did we want to provide traceable food to our customers, but we also wanted to build a meaningful relationship with our farmers - many of whom we are still working with today.
In each of our restaurants you’ll find the names of each of our suppliers right on our local list chalkboards - which differs depending on which location you’re at. We also have what we call our ‘Open Source’ feature on our Instagram, where we really peel back the curtain for our followers, showing them first hand how our food gets from seed to restaurant.
Kwittken: What role do your sourcing partners play in your marketing strategy?
Ru: People now more than ever want to know what’s in their food and where it’s coming from. By continuing to build strong relationships with our farmers and suppliers, and sourcing locally wherever possible, we are able to deliver this expectation to customers. We strive to make the most sustainable and eco-friendly choices possible, and we are proud to share these initiatives.
Many times, we let mother nature dictate what our menus end up looking like so our partners play a key role in our marketing strategy. For example, this winter we launched our Miso bowl, which features miso glazed vegetables including sunchokes and parsnips - not necessarily the most sought out vegetables, but they were what our suppliers had excess of, and we were able to create one of our season’s most popular bowls with them while reducing food waste for our suppliers.
Kwittken: What scares you about the future of food? What excites you?
Ru: At sweetgreen, our focus is on connecting people to real food. It’s encouraging to see a rising interest in a plant-based diet, but it’s never been more important for people to understand what real food means. We are always looking for new ways to leverage data and innovation to usher in a future of more easily accessible, real food. As technology advances, we’re excited to continue cultivating the relationships that make it all possible, such as breeding new vegetables with innovators like chef Dan Barber and Row 7 and putting ingredients on the blockchain with Ripe.io — all of which allows us to build a more transparent food system, while maximizing flavor profiles.
Aaron Kwittken Contributor