How Three Grads Turned Sweetgreen Into a $95 Million VC Darling
When three Georgetown undergraduates, Nicolas Jammet, Jonathan Neman, and Nathaniel Ru, sat in their student digs wondering what they'd do after graduation, they had no idea that eight years later they would control one of America's sexiest startups.
The Washington-based hip and healthy farm-to-table salad chain Sweetgreen started with a single shop in Georgetown in 2007 that was funded by 40 friends and relatives. They're now up to 31 nationwide and set to expand to 40 by the end of this year. They've also completed three rounds of venture capital funding, totaling $95 million. Bloomberg Reserve's Peter Elliot interviewed co-founder and co-Chief Executive Officer Jammet via video at Sweetgreen's office in Washington. Comments have been edited and condensed.
The narrative is delicious: Three students looking for better food off-campus develop a great idea, and it takes off. What's the rest of the story?
We're all the children of entrepreneurs, so the standard institutional options for where we might work really didn't appeal to any of us. The closer it got to graduation, the more none of us, deep down, wanted that life. My parents are restaurateurs [Andre and Rita Jammet, owners of the late La Caravelle and now La Caravelle Champagnes]. Jonathan and Nathaniel [too,] although their parents weren't in the food business. We didn't want to create in an institutional environment. So, in many ways, the desire to build a business of our own, in our own sustainable way, plus the desire to find better food options in Georgetown, did it.
You must have had something that thousands of concepts didn't have. Looking back, can you spot what it is?
We were all hugely disciplined. Once we had the idea—the fact that salad options weren't good, or healthy, or even nutritious, plus how disconnected so many brands get from their roots and from farms—the rest fell into place. I do look back at our original business plan, even now, for direction. It really helped us when we were selling a dream and trying to raise money.
What was the pitch then? Has it changed?
The pitch hasn't changed; we've only added to it. We knew we weren't selling just a lettuce leaf. We're selling a set of values that are about doing everything right, sustainably, and I mean that in business, in the food we serve, in the way we hire and treat people in our stores, in our community, on the farms we work with, in the way we build our stores.
Danny Meyer, a family friend, was an early investor. Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL and now backer of VC firm Revolution, is your largest investor and a Georgetown graduate. You have skill in cultivating the right people.
I'd be an idiot to say that we didn't have opportunities others might not. I'd also be an idiot for not hitting up each and every one of those people with a solid idea that was thought through and that they all knew could win. Did I know that then? No. It was the hard work that won them over. I'd interned for [restaurateur and winemaker] Joe Bastianich the year before. But when he looked at the business plan, he made it clear he supported us because of his belief in our passion and our ability to execute it, not because of the idea itself. That's what being an entrepreneur is all about.
Your employee structure is very hip and almost paternal. You call workers "coaches" and "team members." As you grow, how do you maintain the hipster vibe?
Let's put it this way: If someone leaves, I want to know why. If they're not getting the growth they want, I want to understand. We're that way about all our relationships, from the farmers to the app developers. It's who we are.
What about your partners? How is it going after eight years?
More than eight years! We all met as freshmen. Jonathan was the first person I met. If anything, it's got better and deeper. I mean it's almost funny. We work together, we live next door to each other.
Someone once said, "Everyone knows salad is all about the dressing." How do you make something not sexy seem sexy?
Dressing is a big component. And it's essential, but I bet I could make anyone taste the lettuce we bring in, and taste it just for its flavor alone and understand it's the combination that can make a salad a meal. We are constantly playing with combinations. We're also not just selling lettuce, we're selling a lifestyle, a brand, a vision. That's the sexy part.
Your post-opening investors, like Revolution, are mainly tech startup firms, though increasingly interested in the food space. Do you see yourself more as a food company, a technology company, or a brand?
We're a food startup that has all of those components. I'm really excited about what we're doing in the mobile and tech space. I just get really into the whole idea that someone can order great food for their family or friends, do it on a phone, and come pick it up fast and bypass the line. I literally go to stores and just watch how quickly it's changing. The dynamic between food and technology is definitely a frontier, and I don't know we saw it when we started out. We just wanted to make food that was sustainable, healthy, and delicious presented in a new way. By working together, we are as on top of it as we can be as a company.
Peter Elliot is editor of Bloomberg Brief: Reserve and manages the lifestyle functions on the Bloomberg Professional service. He is Bloomberg's founding food critic and a James Beard Award winner. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @mrpeterelliot.