Expanding a successful venture can be tricky business, especially when that venture is a quirky little restaurant with a loyal following in a highly trafficked part of town. Such was the case for the co-founders of sweetgreen when their growing healthy fast-food chain was in its infancy.
Nicolas Jammet, Jonathan Neman and Nathaniel Ru met at Georgetown University and started sweetgreen in 2007 because “we had nowhere healthy to eat,” Neman recalls. Their first restaurant—a tiny location right in the middle of Washington, DC’s Georgetown neighborhood—was a huge success. But that same success did not play out two years later when they opened their second restaurant in Dupont Circle. “The location was almost 2,000 square feet and we were not doing well,” Neman says. “We got really scared and thought, ‘Do we have to go get real jobs now?’”
The Value of a Little Desperation
Willing to try anything to attract customers, the partners bought some big speakers at Guitar Center and held an impromptu block party in front of the restaurant. They turned up the volume on the indie and electronic music that was their hallmark, handed out samples and spoke to passersby about their mission to connect people through healthy food made with ingredients from local farmers. “When we started, music was always a huge part of the experience,” Neman says. “We wanted to create a restaurant that was about more than food but represented a lifestyle. What was playing in the store was always very important.”
More parties followed and began to have an impact on sales, so the partners decided to ratchet things up. They coordinated their events with a local Sunday farmers market, hired some local bands to play live music and eventually invited partners, such as Lululemon, to participate. “It was an expression of the lifestyle that we promoted through our brand,” Neman says. He and his partners spent approximately $10,000 on the events, which Neman says were “an awesome brand halo and a proud part of our company culture.” By that time, sweetgreen had expanded to four locations.
Go Big or Go Home
Bolstered by their success, the partners made a bold move in 2010 and decided to sponsor a full-blown music festival. Working with a local music promoter called I.M.P., they began to scout out locations and set their sights on Merriweather Post Pavilion, a major concert venue in nearby Columbia, Maryland. “It was a go big or go home moment,” Neman recalls. The goal: to attract 15,000 people, connecting them to great music for a variety of bands, great food and, of course, the sweetgreen brand. The partners made a wish list of the favorite bands, and when an award-winning international band said yes to headlining the 2011 festival, “it became real,” Neman says.
That first year, the festival, called sweetlife, sold 15,000 tickets at $60 a pop. All profits were donated to food-related charities. Now in its fifth year, the festival has grown to 25,000 attendees, three stages and 15 bands. It also attracts a host of strategic partners “who share our values,” Neman says, such as Stonyfield, KIND and Honest Tea. While costs have increased dramatically, Neman won’t share exact numbers. He does, however, note that the company breaks even and still donates all profits to FoodCorps, a not-for-profit organization that spreads the healthy-food message to elementary-school children in underserved communities.
Blueprint for Success
Sweetgreen now has 29 stores on the East Coast, more than 1,000 full- and part-time employees, and recently landed an $18.5 million round of capital, led by Steve Case’s Revolution. But before that explosive growth, Neman says the sweetlife festival “made us feel and look a lot bigger than we were.” While not every small company can or should play in the events space like sweetgreen does, for those who want to dip their toes into those waters, Neman offers these tips:
- Be authentic. “You need to find an expression that is true to your company’s DNA,” he says. “Music was part of our DNA from the beginning.”
- Start small but dream big. Sweetgreen was a tiny company with big ambitions when the partners first transformed their block party into a music festival. “There’s no idea that’s too big,” Neman says.
- Find the right partners. It takes a village to create an event, and you need to make sure that your partners share your goals and values. “Our partners connect with our values, which are keeping it real, sustainability, and making an impact,” Neman says.
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Photos: Courtesy of sweetgreen