Every Georgetown student is familiar with Sweetgreen, whether as a post-workout snack, a quick lunch between classes or as the “Destination D.C.” aspect of the particularly unadventurous New Student Orientation adviser.
Six years ago, the only Hoyas who knew about Sweetgreen were its founders, Nathaniel Ru (MSB ’07), Jonathan Neman (MSB ’07) and Nicolas Jammet (MSB ’07). At the beginning of their senior year, the trio began to discuss the limited options for healthy and affordable food in Georgetown.
“We bonded over: one, a love of food; two, a wanting to create something; and three, a wanting to solve a problem in our own lives,” Neman said.
Shortly after, they laid out their vision and developed a business plan. However, Ru, Neman and Jammet had hardly any prior experience. Although each of them had parents who were successful entrepreneurs, the three did not know what it took to build a business, and they knew even less about the food industry.
This lack of experience turned out to be the key to Sweetgreen’s success, as it provided an opportunity to “approach every problem with a fresh set of eyes,” Jammet said.
The original location on M Street, ended up being only 500 square feet, and the limited resources pushed the group to think creatively and focus only on that which they determined they could not go without: a commitment to sustainability and quality ingredients.
The three sought advice from restaurant owners, architects and Georgetown faculty.
“It was not a school project, but we did use our senior year and all of the things we were learning and applied it into building Sweetgreen,” said Neman.
In their business classes, they learned the importance of a value-driven business and began to understand how the culture of a community can influence a brand. They are proud to see that Georgetown still emphasizes the importance of service and are impressed by how much the business school has grown over the past nine years, specifically in its entrepreneurship program.
Reflecting their values, the founders still make sure to incorporate community service into their company. Launched in 2010, “Sweetgreen in Schools” is a program that seeks to educate children about nutrition and healthy living through various hands-on activities and workshops. The program has evolved from a weekly activity in local schools into a series of workshops across Virginia, New York, the District of Columbia and Maryland. To date, the program has seen the participation of more than 20,000 children and is continuing to expand to other cities.
“The more you know about food, the more you want to eat right,” Jammet said.
When Sweetgreen’s second location began to fail, its founders knew they needed a way to connect to the surrounding community. The three decided to incorporate music, another passion of theirs, and thus the idea for Sweetlife -— an annual music and food festival — was born.
“It’s a party with a purpose,” Neman said. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if you could go see a band like The Strokes or Kendrick Lamar while eating a bowl of salad or some quinoa?’”
People have certainly responded well to the idea. The event has grown from a block party of no more than 1,000 people to a 15,000-person event located at the iconic Merriweather Post Pavilion and has featured performances by Avicii, Calvin Harris, The Weeknd and The 1975.
Sweetlife continues to evolve, and similar events are already being hosted around other Sweetgreen locations across the country. But for the three Hoyas, the glamour of the event is not the most important element; rather, the main goal is to inspire all whom attend to live their healthiest life.
According to the founders, Sweetgreen is about more than just salad. The company is based on five core values: “Win, win, win,” “Think sustainably,” “Keep it real,” “Add the sweet touch” and “Make an impact.” All of these values influence the business decisions they make, who they hire and how they celebrate their successes. The founders pride themselves on developing solutions that benefit the customer and the community while making an impact.
“We’ve been using these values as the foundation for our company since the very beginning. Everyone in the company knows about them, and they really do drive our company,” Jammet said. Neman chimed in, “The way we keep [the values] alive throughout the organization is not by having people memorize them, but by living them and storytelling.”
They believe that their product, a delicious and fulfilling salad, is an embodiment of their brand and their values. While it is a food company, Sweetgreen believes in genuine human connection and strives to reach its customers on an emotional level.
Nine years later, Ru, Neman and Jammet do all they can to stay involved in the Georgetown community. Both Neman and Ru have younger siblings who attend the school. They still feel very connected to the community and try to come back and speak about their journey several times throughout the year.
“Georgetown is still near and dear to our hearts,” Neman said.
In the near future, the three will be returning to Georgetown for an undisclosed initiative.
“We’ve got some fun stuff planned in Georgetown that you will hear about very soon,” Jammet said.
Since the group first started at Georgetown 13 years ago, the amount of healthy dining options on campus has improved significantly. Ru, Neman and Jammet hope that Georgetown continues to build upon that progress by investing in alternative dining options and that, as students and faculty begin to gain knowledge and understand the importance of eating healthy and living a sustainable lifestyle, the options on campus will develop.
As business-owners, the trio feel a responsibility to provide education and access to healthy culinary options. If the trajectory of the past decade is any indication, Ru, Neman and Jammet have a lifetime of success and opportunity ahead.
Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.