neighborhood—one that regularly had lines down the block.
Fast-forward a decade: Sweetgreen is slinging salad in 70
locations across the country, with plans to expand to 90 by
the end of this year. Jammet, Neman, and Ru are selling an
aspirational lifestyle along with their kale caesar salads and
quinoa-stufed grain bowls, a savvy package that appeals to
food-world celebrities as much as to nutrition-conscious
consumers. Each Sweetgreen location proudly proclaims
its transparent, farm-to-table bona fdes, with seasonally
tweaked menus and chalkboards listing the local farms that
supply many of its salad ingredients.
“They’ve done a very impressive job,” says R.J. Hottovy,
senior retail and restaurant analyst at Chicago-based invest-
ment research frm Morningstar (with which Inc. shares an
owner). “It’s not easy building out a local and regional supply
chain while building a national brand.”
It’s a huge, ongoing challenge—one that will only intensify
with the company’s expansion. While Sweetgreen won’t
discuss revenue or proftability (sales were last estimated to
be $50 million in 2014, with the company unproftable), in the
past several months it gave Inc. an unprecedented, extensive
peek inside its national farm-to-bowl operation. The lessons
Sweetgreen and its partners have learned along the way can
apply whether your business is a supplier to bigger companies
or one that’s trying to set up its own supply chain.
Sweetgreen readily acknowledges that it’s impossible to
fnd, say, fresh arugula in Chicago in the middle of January.
But when it can’t source locally, it tells customers where their
salad ingredients were shipped from. “I think that level of
transparency is admirable,” says Mark Bittman, the longtime
food writer and sustainability advocate, who co-created a
salad for Sweetgreen in 2014 and now considers Jammet
a friend. “Ofand, I can’t think of a better way to make this
work. And you can’t argue with their success.”
Sweetgreen’s supply chain counts hundreds of regional
growers, producers, and distributors, and has played a
major role in its race to achieve national scale. Food-world
connections also help: Sweetgreen has raised $135 million
from investors including Shake Shack co-founder Danny
Meyer, Momofuku overlord David Chang, and prolifc French
restaurateur Daniel Boulud. Jammet, whose parents owned
high-end New York City eatery La Caravelle, grew up in this
world and now oversees Sweetgreen’s food operations: “One
of the reasons why we’re building this business is to create a
diferent kind of relationship with food,” he says.
Still, in the race to become the king of sustainable salads,
Sweetgreen is facing mounting competition from other fast-
casual startups, including Dig Inn and Tender Greens (another
Meyer-backed salad chain). But its biggest challenge might
be growth itself. As Sweetgreen tries to do for bowl-based
vegetables what Chipotle did for burritos,
the younger company is also trying to avoid
its elder’s stumbles. Chipotle, one of the frst
national brands to market where its ingredients
come from, has faced supply-chain issues and
food-borne-illness outbreaks as its restaurants
have grown in number to more than 2,300.
Jammet is hoping that Sweetgreen’s slower
growth plans, which restrict it to markets that
can support at least fve to 10 restaurants at a
time in a region, will prevent similar problems.
The other question: Can Sweetgreen’s suppli-
ers keep up with its growth, and its demands for
sustainable raw ingredients? “You can’t convert
land to organic in less than three years,” as Bitt-
man says. “You can’t create farmers when land
is so expensive. It’s not instantaneous, obviously.”
As shown on these pages, Sweetgreen has
already worked with some of its suppliers to
increase their capacities or improve the ef-
ciency of their operations. But the salad chain’s
growth has also yielded some complications
for its farmers, cheesemongers, and other local
food suppliers. Now, as more companies try to
tell stories around where their products come
from to meet increasingly informed consumer
tastes, you can learn a lot from how Sweetgreen
and its suppliers went from begging a local
distributor for arugula to selling Americans on
LINDSAY BLAKELY is Inc.’s Los Angeles bureau chief.
STARTUP GENES Ru’s dad
emigrated from Taiwan
and started an L.A.
goods from Asia.
LEADERSHIP LESSON Always
hire ahead of the curve.
The co-founders waited
until they had opened
three stores before hiring
any corporate staf. “You
bootstrap a lot of things
yourself in the beginning,
but it was just the three
of us,” Ru says. “We
needed some help.”
THE BRAINS BEHIND THE BOWLS
Since their undergraduate days, Sweetgreen’s co-founders
have shared the chief executive role—and one giant desk.
Ten years later, they’ve divided and conquered nine markets.
NICOLAS JAMME T
Food and beverage
STARTUP GENES With parents on New York City’s
restaurant scene, Jammet interned for chef Joe
Bastianich and restaurateur Danny Meyer.
Sweetgreen’s second store
was a ghost town—until
the co-founders started
blasting music and
sampling food outside.
“Never waste a crisis,”
Jammet says. “Shit is
going to happen. Flip
it and make a positive
out of it.”
Tech, real estate,
STARTUP GENES His parents
emigrated from Iran and
started an L.A. textile
manufacturer. In high
school, Neman sold day
planners and ran a tutoring business.
LEADERSHIP LESSON When
its frst VC funding,
it switched from geographic expansion
to developing an open-kitchen layout and online
you have to slow down to
speed up,” Neman says.