By Vanessa Packer
Photography Sasha Israel
“THE IDEA BEGAN WITH A HEALTHY BUT BALANCED LIFESTYLE”, Jonathan Neman says over a Spicy Sabzi, one of Sweetgreen’s signature salads that includes shredded kale and spicy quinoa. In 2007, after graduating from Georgetown University, Neman along with classmates Nicolas Jammet and Nathaniel Ru opened Sweetgreen, a farm to table, eco-chic, fast-casual salad restaurant geared toward the cool-but-conscious consumer, which they themselves embodied. Beyond serving salads, successful weekly block parties at their Dupont location led to the birth of Sweet Life, an annual sustainable music and food festival put on by the Sweetgreen founders that brought together a healthy lifestyle with a music festival spirit. As Jammet explains, “The most fun day of the month shouldn’t be the least healthy.” An idea that first began in a 560-square-foot house laid the foundation of what would become a multi-city movement. “Passion with a purpose” is their company motto and with 22 stores and a recent $22 million investment from Revolution Growth, they show no signs of slowing down. bonberi sat down with the innovative restauranteurs to find out what keeps them balanced and focuses in and out of the vortex.
How did Sweetgreen come about?
Nic: We met at Georgetown. We started this when we were seniors, but we met while going to school there over the years. We all shared a similar problem in that there was no where to eat that fit our values, and fit the lifestyle we wanted to live. In the beginning, we wanted to solve that problem and create a solution. We all come from families that built business and created business with partners, and we wanted to do that ourselves. We didn’t want to work for a big company or big institution. We started with a business plan, tested recipes, and signed a lease. We started building Sweetgreen off of what we thought was cool. We were building it for ourselves, we were the customer. We opened two weeks after graduation and started building our team and that’s where its all started. The year was 2007.
What is the lifestyle you wanted to lead?
Jon: I think it was the idea of a healthy but balanced lifestyle. We want to be healthy, but we want to have fun. Sweetgreen is at the intersection of passion and purpose. Why can’t you have both? Why can’t you have a life that is both meaningful and fun. We wanted a place that was healthy but not preachy, and was a comfortable place to go that offered healthy, affordable, simple food. That was the life. It’s almost like have your cake and eat it too. Be able to go out with your friends, have drinks, wake up go to yoga, eat a healthy meal, but still have indulgent dinner. We offer options for vegans, kosher, vegetarians, meat eaters, we don’t judge. We provide clean options for everyone.
Why did you guys choose The Nomad?
Nic: Because of Roy. It was very much his influence. We had been looking in New York for some time, looking for an opportunity. We knew the day we opened in New York was going to be a big day and we wanted to be ready. We didn’t want to open on fast casual row, and be another place like that. We wanted people to feel different, and show that we stand for something, we are not just a fast food place even though it’s convenient. Roy called us one day and said “I have this place in this new hotel we are building, we need a cool operator for something casual, do you guys know anyone?” Not really asking for us in particular but just if we knew anyone. At first, we were thinking of who we could think of for them. After a few minutes, we were like, “We should do this!” It was a perfect way for us to enter the market. That was two years ago, and this neighborhood has really come a long way in two years. we saw the energy, we saw what they were trying to build, and we decided to be part of this Broadway revival with The Ace and The Nomad. We saw a lot of our customer here, and they were very underserved. They live or work around here and there aren’t many options for them to go that is quick and easy, so we thought it would be a perfect fit to solve that problem.
When you were saying there was a void in DC what was there restaurant/lunch scene like?
Jon: Nic and I met Freshman year, and our friendship was built off of food. We would escape the terrible food on campus, typical cafeteria food like Philly cheesesteaks and pizza. We would go off to some restaurant every couple months and explore the city, but the scene even around Georgetown, all there was was Chipotle and Dean and Deluca, where you could find healthy food but it was expensive and Chipotle was reasonable but you can’t eat everyday. We wanted to take the fast food industry, but make it healthy.
Jon: We saw salads as a really simple one product idea that leant itself to a lot of flavors. You could make a light or heavy salad by combining different ingredients to make it what you want.
Did you guys always eat salad? Guys don’t always eat salad in college.
Jon: We grew up in New York and LA, which are more accustom to a salad culture. We also attribute some of it to the girls around us, we listen to women.
The Juice Press owner is famous for saying, ‘Hot girls drink juice’ Is that part of the inspiration, attracting pretty girls with salad?
Nate: We won’t go that far. We love the fact that you can can order with your eyes. Healthy eating is expensive it’s complicated sometimes. We wanted to make it as easy as possible, seeing the ingredients and seeing how fresh everything is, is the best way to educate the customer on where food comes from. I get to customize what I want, and do it in a place thats pretty cool. Customizing and doing it in a transparent way is why we did sales, I think.
Purveyors and farmers are a big part of your company, even the store has a large photo of one of your purveyors, was that always important factor or did it grow over time?
Nic: Our approach has always been to think of the community, not just with food. Everyone in the community from the farmers to the customers, to the fitness partners, thinking of how we can become a part of the community. It’s natural, the food taste better it supports the local economy, it’s better for you. It’s a win win win.
Nate: Sweetgreen is not chef driven, it’s ingredient driven. So, we try to find the best ingredients, and allow the customer to ‘choose your adventure’, sort of.
How did you create the menu?
Nic: It started in our dorm room. We put together salads that were creative and fun, but simple enough that they showcased the local ingredients. We’re not big fans of chopping sales up too finely. We are big fans of letting the ingredients shine on their own. We wanted combinations that are creative and balanced.
What is your favorite salad right now?
Nic: Our seasonal salad. The December salad is shredded kale, mesclun, sweet potatoes, apples, roasted turkey, and cauliflower.
Jon: The Guacamole Greens until recently. Our new Kale Caesar is my new favorite.
Nate: I go through phases, I really like the wild rice bowl that we just came out with. It’s heartier and better for the colder months.
What is your philosophy on keeping healthy and balanced?
Jon: Extreme balance. So it’s: wake up healthy, do yoga, eat a healthy breakfast, a healthy lunch. But, it’s a balance. So then in the evening, we are also foodies, so we will eat somewhere great, enjoy some wine, but then bring it back the next day.
Nic: Two parts. First, you have to enjoy it, it should be fun and feel good. Second, it should be sustainable. You should live it for longer then a month. I like to run, but have recently gotten into yoga. My goal is to go vegetarian by the end of the year. It was the whole forth quarter, cold turkey goal.
Nate: My philosophy on living a healthy lifestyle is making sure you have moments of the day that you can spend time alone. We all kind of live in the vortex, it’s the non stop world of engagement, energy, socializing and phones, and I think it’s so much fun and so important. But, in order to do that even better, you need the time to sit by yourself read a book, wake up with an analogue alarm clock instead of your cell phone. That is what gives me the peace of mind to go into the vortex everyday.
Nic: Our company is big on goal setting. We put them up on a chalkboard in the office. Everyone will write what their goals are for the quarter. I wrote my goal up and everyone watches out for me. Everyone watched our for everyone else. Everyone keeps each other accountable, you’ll get called out.
Are they office wide goals or personal goals?
Jon: We have office wide goals, as well as personal goals. We call our office the treehouse, it’s about 30 of us there and it’s the support center for all the stores. We have a board there where we put down a personal B-HAG (big hairy audacious goal) so it’s always something personal. One of our employees tore her ACL about a year ago, and she was always a runner, so one of her goals was to be able to run a 10k by the end of the year. Another employee we have loves to bake, one of her goals is bake two things every week.
Nic: Even if it was your goal internally, to voice it and put it on a board in front of your team, everyone is there to support you and hold you accountable.
What’s your goal?
Jon: My goal is to sleep 50 hours a week, and meditate every day. Meditating is easier to do, but the sleeping 50 hours is the hard one.
Nate: My B-HAG is no hard alcohol. It’s been kind of difficult. It’s been a couple of months.
What is your meditation practice?
Jon: 10-20 minutes almost everyday. I just sit. Sometimes we do it together.
What inspired you to get into meditation?
Jon: My parents were into it. I don’t know if I really took it seriously, but I always watched them do it, and saw what it did for their lives. Then a good friend of ours got us into it and introduced us to a teacher, his name is Light Walkins.
How often do you eat out?
Nic: A few times a week.
Do you cook?
Nic: We do, but we are in the office really late, and when we do cook its simple stuff. We’re all about these family dinners on sunday night. We used to do them a lot in DC we are starting to do it in New York. For us, eating is very social. The act of bringing people together, around a table, over good food. That’s therapeutic for me.
Jon: We live to eat.
When you do family dinners, what do you cook?
Jon: We did a Peking Duck dinner recently. We had our friend make a Peking Duck, and we made some vegetables.
Nic: It always starts at the farmers market. We’ll see what looks good there and the menu will come out of that. We are always inspired by that. A lot of veggies usually, sometimes a lot of duck, haha.
What is your guilty pleasure?
Nate: Hi Chew, the little Japanese candy. I could eat a lot of those.
Nic: Momofuku pork buns.
Jon: Good red wine, good tequila, and good dark chocolate.
How did the Sweet Life festival come about?
Jon: Sweet Life started out as a solution to a problem. Music was always a big part of what we did, and what inspired us. If we didn’t end up doing food, we may have gone into music. When we opened, food was a big part of the experience, and when we opened our second location in Dupont Circle, it was really struggling. It was bigger then our first store. So we are sitting there a few weeks in thinking, “Oh shit, we’re screwed, now we have to go get real jobs.” So we thought, “Why don’t we throw a party.” We went to guitar center, bought a giant speaker and started DJing outside the store every Saturday and Sunday for a few months. It organically turned into a block party, and then it turned into an official block parties with local talent, and that store was close to the farmers market so it was a post farmers market block party bringing it back to the food. We wanted to make it bigger, so we looked at spaces, spoke to different venues. We met a guy named Seth, who is now our partner, and he has a place called The Merriweather Post Pavilion, and it was a go big or go home moment. We now do a festival for 20 thousand peoples. We had a lot of luck, The Strokes agreed to do it our first year, we had 15 thousand people. It was a good partner, a lot of luck, and good music.
What’s the mission of Sweet Life?
Jon: It’s an extension of Sweetgreen, in that it’s a party with a purpose. It’s an embodiment of the brand. It’s music and food, and we had a big yoga session last year too. We want it to be a large scale music festival with a conscious. It’s sustainable, the food is local, we have a big presence there. This year, you were watching Phoenix, eating kale and drinking green juice. Why can’t you have that. Festival with great music that are healthy too.
Nic: The most fun day of the month, shouldn’t be the least healthy.
Do you have a non-negotiable thing you do everyday for your wellbeing?
Nic: I wish it was meditation, it should be. I try to disconnect for at least 15 minutes a day.
Jon: Something healthy every day, a green juice or a yoga session.
Do you guys juice?
Jon: We drink juice, but we don’t believe in juice cleansing, because it’s not balance. We love food, and juice should maybe substitute a meal, but not all meals.
Have you influenced your friends to be a little more healthy?
Jon: I think so yea. We are here a lot so our friends come and meet us for lunch. Healthy eating can still taste good and be affordable and fun. It doesn’t have to be hard.
Are there other companies that you were inspired by?
Jon: Lululemon, Patagonia, Whole Foods, Apple, Zappos for the people culture.
What is something your not willing to give up?
Nic: Momofuku pork buns.
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