Sweetgreens' Sweet Dream: Green Tastes Good When Done Well

Green Living — By on July 1, 2009 7:00 AM

By Alix Shutello

I was lucky to catch Jonathan Neman on his cell phone on Friday afternoon as he and the other two founders of Sweetgreen restaurant made their way out of town for the weekend.

Photo credit: Olivia Wolfe (www.oliviawolfe.com) Founders of Sweetgreen left to right: Nicolas Jammet, Jonathan Neman, Nathaniel Ru

Photo credit: Olivia Wolfe (www.oliviawolfe.com) Founders of Sweetgreen left to right: Nicolas Jammet, Jonathan Neman, Nathaniel Ru

Sweetgreen (www.sweetgreen.com) caught my eye when I heard there were three eco-conscious people making it in the restaurant take-out business, doing well despite the economy. Founders Jonathan Neman (a fellow yogi), Nicolas (Nic) Jammet and Nathaniel Ru opened Sweetgreen in Georgetown in August 2007 and have had enough success to open two new restaurants in the DC area in the last two years selling two things – signature salads and vanilla yogurt desserts.

“What’s your secret?” I asked the Georgetown alum, as he chuckled that Nic and Nathaniel were teasing him as he talked to me. Without hesitation he said, “It was a good opportunity for us to offer a cheaper alternative to going out to dinner. We knew, through living in Georgetown and talking amongst our friends, that the area needed a dining experience where healthy food was served in a take out atmosphere.”

Georgetown’s famous M street is a shopping mecca of high-end shopping with very little in the way of takeout food for college students and others looking to get good quality food quickly. Georgetown offers a limited smattering of burger joints and college-type eateries, and is the home to pricier restaurants like Clydes and fancy dessert joints like the famous Thomas Sweet. For Jonathan and his two classmates, Georgetown was lacking a healthy eatery that didn’t break the bank.

“We got tired of going to Dean and Deluca’s all the time,” he said.

My husband, who attended Georgetown in the ’80s, is still bummed about the closing of his favorite taco stand. And while Sweetgreen is not his cup of tea, I’ve seen people post blogs about how they happened to stop into Sweetgreen, swearing they’d never eat salads and who are now huge fans of the establishment.

As Jonathan talked about his customer base, I asked how he knew his model would work. I asked him, as he described some of his customers as those who come about four times a week, if he had done any focus groups.

“No,” Jonathan answered as he went on to explain that it was his inner circle of friends who were looking for an alternative to what Georgetown currently offered.

Walking their Talk Environmentally

During the concept development phase for their restaurant model, Sweetgreens’ founders sat down and talked about what was important – the environment, being number one on their list.
Adopting the concept of buying locally and organic when possible, Jonathan described their food standards.

“We buy organic when we can – like for example our milk, yogurt, and lettuce is organic, but all of our other produce and products come from local sources. We believe buying locally is more important than buying organic because of its impact on the environment,” he said.

On top of organic or locally-grown produce, Sweetgreen strives to leave a minimal footprint on the environment. Sweetgreen buys offsets, or energy through renewable energies that offset their carbon footprint (for more on carbon offsets see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_offset) through Clean Currents for wind energy to run their restaurant and area certified 3-star eco-restaurant through the Green Restaurant Association. All containers and utensils are biodegradable and made from corn; the restaurant actively recycles and composts; takeout menus are embedded with wildflower seeds for planting after use; and the company is powered by wind energy after Sweetgreen purchases carbon offsets.

They recycle and use eco-friendly biodegradable utensils and promote waste reduction through their Salad “Blaster” reusable bowl. The bowls are designed to be filled with Sweetgreen salad and have a special salad dressing holder on the top of the bowl. Customers who bring their bowls to the restaurant receive a free topping.

A number of years ago, I walked into a Wendy’s and asked, if I bought their salad, then would it be possible to use my own Tupperware. That idea was shut down. Another time, I was travelling from New York City to DC when I stopped at a Sparro’s in Baltimore and brought in my reusable mug and asked for a coke. The woman behind the counter would not serve me. She went and got her manager to serve me in the mug – the concept of bringing containers to a restaurant to save waste was unheard of, but not any more. I am so glad there now is a restaurant that understands the concepts of reusing bowls.

And the gimmick is paying off.

Success Comes – Good Timing and a Good Concept

Sweetgreens’ success can definitely be attributed to opening a restaurant at the right place, at the right time, and also to having a fellow partner, Nic Jammet, who grew up in the biz- according to the Best Bites Blog on WashingtonPost.com. The founders also had some good connections when it came to investors; they include former college classmates and Joseph Bastianich, business partner of celebrity chef Mario Batali.

The restaurant grossed over $1.3 million its first year, allowing the founders to pay back their investors and open two new restaurants. Now, the alums sit in an office in Dupont Circle and let others run their restaurants.

“We now allow the restaurant to be run by people who know how to run restaurants. The rest of us work on concepts and branding.”

The bottom line for the Sweetgreen consumer is a relatively simple concept – keep the menu devoid of clutter, offer a few things to choose from, and maintain a great atmosphere.

“People have too many choices to make. We are going to maybe change up a salad or two but keep our concept the same without significantly growing the menu.”

I hung up the phone and wondered when I could get myself over to try one of those salads!

Greensweet has four locations in the greater DC area
Goto http://www.sweetgreen.com/ for more info

See Sweetgreen on Flikr

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