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Sweetgreen: Part Of A Trend In Sustainable Food

McDonald’s has announced it will switch to cage-free eggs over the next decade, joining Subway and Starbucks, although those two companies haven’t laid out timelines for their changeover. How much is ethical food driving customers and food industry leaders?

The Washington, D.C.-based restaurant chain Sweetgreen is a telling example. Its goal is to deliver its fresh assembly-line salads with a hip sustainable-food attitude.

Sweetgreen has 31 restaurants so far, mainly in the Northeast and a few in California, and it just received $35 million from private investors, including AOL co-founder Steve Case, who thinks the company could be as big as Starbucks someday. But Starbucks made enemies for closing down local coffee shops.

In this week’s View From The Top, Here & Now’s Robin Young speaks with one of the co-founders of Sweetgreen, Jonathan Neman, about what kind of model he plans on following.

Interview Highlights

On Sweetgreen’s inception

“It really started with us wanting to solve a problem. We spent our first three years at school here in D.C., we went to Georgetown and we really just had nowhere to eat clean healthy food that was affordable. What started as very small idea, in a very small space, as soon as we started to work on it we realized it could solve a much bigger problem in more communities than just where we were.”

On Sweetgreen’s mission

“For us it’s really all about the experience and community. So the food is really important, where the food comes from. So when you think about what we do that’s different, it’s actually how we get our food and connect with local farmers and how we prepare our food So we have no commissaries at Sweetgreen, all of our food is delivered daily and prepared from scratch in the kitchens there. In the newer restaurants, it’s a fully open kitchen with even a glass walk-in refrigerator, so you can see everything right there. So everything – all the meat is marinated and roasted daily. All the dressings are made in the restaurant every single day. From an experience perspective it’s more than just the food, it really is the vibe of the place, which starts from the team members. So from our head coach right down to every team member, it’s the energy they create in the restaurant. That experience down the line may only be 90 seconds, but if we can leave you off better than when we found you, we’ve done a really good thing.”

On Sweetgreen’s challenges getting fresh food to every restaurant daily

“So it definitely is a challenge as we continue to scale. We have a great team of people working on sourcing. When we go to a new market we actually meet farmers before we meet landlords. For us, it’s a flexible menu, so it’s a menu that changes five times a year, by city. So there’s certain things that change and certain things that don’t. In Boston, for example, where we have three restaurants, in the summer months where we can get a lot more local, we get as much of it as possible. When we can’t we lean on our organic partners a lot of which are in California. The key for us is transparency, so the idea for our sourcing is to make the best decision we can, but then to tell you exactly what we did and why we did it.”

On Sweetgreen’s future

“For me and for my partners, that is one of the dreams. It starts with education and then access, so as we continue to scale our buying power and our brand, and then the influence we can have on changing the way people think about food will hopefully allow us to get to places we could never dream of today. That’s why – Starbucks, in a way is a great example – there’s nowhere you can go without being able to find a good cup of coffee from Starbucks.”

On Josh Tetrick of Hampton Creek and other CEOs trying to make an impact

“One thing we talk a lot about is how we both have brands whose voice can be bigger than the actual share, so we say ‘mind share’ greater than ‘market share’. You look at what he’s doing with Hampton Creek and he’s sparking a national conversation. He’s taken out a number of ads in the New York Times, ‘Dear CEO,’ ‘Dear future President,’ they’re bold moves and they’re getting people talking. And he’s changing consumer mindset about where food comes from and how we should think about it and that’s what I admire about him. That’s something we’re trying to do the same. At the end of the day, our vision is to change the way people live, starting with the way they think about food. And it’s going to be more than about how we open restaurants and where we open restaurants, it’s about sparking a national conversation.”

Guest

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

From left: Sweetgreen co-founders and co-CEOs Nicolas Jammet, Nathaniel Ru and Jonathan Neman. (Courtesy of Sweetgreen)
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From left: Sweetgreen co-founders and co-CEOs Nicolas Jammet, Nathaniel Ru and Jonathan Neman. (Courtesy of Sweetgreen)