Sweetgreen Co-Founder Nathaniel Ru says he learns more about his company from a few hours spent in the restaurant than a day at the office. And over the last 12 years, he has truly exemplified what it takes to lead a Challenger brand – from embracing change to working all areas of the business to letting purpose guide the way (see more about their brand purpose in this Adweek Original video). It's also Nathaniel’s focus on not just what the brand is, but what it could be that has helped them grow from a 560 sq. ft. shop in Georgetown to a cult favorite spot in nearly 100 locations nationwide, valued at over $1 billion.
Why did you start sweetgreen?
My two co-founders and I met at Georgetown University and started sweetgreen two months after we graduated. As college students, when we were originally putting together the business plan, we found that you had two main choices for food: it was either fast, cheap and unhealthy, or slow, expensive and fresh. We wanted to create a place where you didn’t have to sacrifice price for flavor or convenience. So, we opened our first sweetgreen location down the street from campus... Our mission today is the same as it was 11 years ago – to connect more people to real food.
What major challenges did you have to overcome as an entrepreneur?
In the beginning, Jon, Nic and I did every role in the company – we were a small start-up, so for a while, it was just the three of us with very little experience. We had to learn by doing and spent every day for the first year working in the restaurant. One of the biggest challenges was understanding how to create a supply chain that fit our food ethos. It started by us walking to our D.C. neighborhood farmers market and introducing ourselves. We worked tirelessly to set up the logistics, volume forecasting, and most importantly farmer trust. It took us 5 years to truly understand the complexities of moving food around the country and building the right team to help us execute it. We still have a lot to learn and room to improve, but we have taken the model we set up in D.C. as our blueprint for the rest of the country.
What defining characteristics make sweetgreen a Challenger?
Some of our biggest innovations have been focused on building our supply chain for scale and leveraging technology. Today we work with over 150 farms that distribute food to six regional supply chains that service 94 locations nationwide. We have spent the last few years building a decentralized supply chain system so that we can provide the best quality and consistency while still being flexible to what is in season. We want to change the industry norm that fast food has to taste the same everywhere and show that it’s normal to have a Guacamole Greens taste different in LA than it does in DC.
"Technology has always been a tool for us to enhance the experience, but never to replace it."
Technology has always been a tool for us to enhance the experience, but never to replace it. Today our digital ordering app represents more than 50% of our total revenue and allows customers to skip the line, personalize their favorites and earn loyalty rewards. We recently partnered with RIPE.IO to use their blockchain technology to understand end-to-end transparency of our ingredients from seed to store.
What are the biggest changes in your industry and how are you staying ahead of them?
The concept of brick + mortar stores is shifting rapidly. With delivery, ghost kitchens and order ahead on the rise, we’re determined to meet our customers where they are. We’re evolving from a fast-casual restaurant chain to a fully integrated food platform. This means personalization and dialing into the preferences and lifestyle of each customer while redefining how food is sourced and supplied.
This past year we rolled out a pilot program, called Outpost, that delivers customized orders to kiosks located in office buildings. What’s exciting about Outpost is it allows us to serve customers with no delivery fee and without having to build new locations. This is disrupting the traditional storefront idea.
What are you currently working on that’s unique or innovative?
We recently partnered with FoodCorps to help guide future generations to make healthier food choices as part of their re-imagining school cafeterias program. At sweetgreen, we have impacted more than 8,000 students to date with our own sweetgreen In Schools program, and this partnership allows us to nearly double that impact in one school year. It’s imperative we change the school food system, and having FoodCorps as our partner on this mission allows us to help even more kids gain access to healthy, fresh food at school.
Tell us about the big learning moments you’ve had along your career path or in your company’s course?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned along the way is to stay close to your customers… become customer obsessed. Every seasonal launch we encourage our team members in our HQ to work a shift in the restaurants with the goal of improving the experience. Every time I visit a restaurant, I learn more about the company in the few hours than I do at any day at the office. It’s been an invaluable opportunity to observe the things that make the sweetgreen experience great, but also focus on the areas for opportunity. Many of our best ideas have come directly from the restaurants or team member ideas on how to improve the menu or the operation.
What one leadership trait do you think is most critical to making a Challenger Brand successful?
Building a mindset to embrace change and flexibility from the beginning. Adaptability has allowed us to design products and experiences for modularity because everything changes so quickly. I try to look at things in not just today’s functionality, but what will this look like 5, 10 or even 100 years from now? How can we show up in unexpected ways?
What advice would you give to other marketing pioneers?
"The best piece of advice I can give is to maintain your curiosity about aspects of the business outside of your day-to-day."
Great leaders, regardless of company stage or functional expertise, are really well-versed in all parts of the business. The best piece of advice I can give is to maintain your curiosity about aspects of the business outside of your day-to-day. Today, I manage marketing, creative and design but I’ve dug into everything from our supply chain to our CX team. It’s also a good idea to focus on a different market every quarter or so to understand the nuances. All of this makes it easier to connect the dots and help solve problems in your own role, whether it's a national campaign or a product design hurdle.