Sweetgreen continues rapid growth with opening of Ballston location

By Danielle Douglas
Monday, November 1, 2010

College friends Nicolas Jammet, Jonathan Neman and Nathaniel Ru plan to launch their seventh Sweetgreen, a salad and frozen yogurt bar, in the Washington area, with this week's opening in Ballston.

The new store is one of three to have sprung up in the past several months as the healthy fast-casual concept continues to resonate with local foodies. But the rapid growth of Sweetgreen is as much a testament to its popularity as it is to the strategy of its owners, who have spent an equal amount of time developing the products and the brand.

Behind the products are a wide variety of organic and locally sourced ingredients for hearty, gourmet salads at $8 to $9 and low-calorie frozen yogurt at $6. Behind the brand is a philosophy of holistic living, carried throughout the company's operations, from the use of plant-based packaging to reclaimed building materials. The threesome has positioned Sweetgreen as part of a lifestyle, promoting eco-friendly causes on the company's blog, volunteering in the community and hosting music festivals featuring like-minded bands.

"We want to create a brand that has impact, so we really focus on the integrity of our product," Jammet said. "For us, the success factor is the impact, it's winning the healthy, fast-casual category. We want to be the predominant provider in the market."

The owners would not share just how profitable the business has been, but sales, they say, are strong enough to warrant growth. Sweetgreen counts some 240 employees across its local footprint. A visit to the company's new corporate digs, a converted rowhouse in Dupont Circle, revealed a spry, young staff, many of whose members were plucked straight from the owners' alma mater, Georgetown University.

"We really believe in hiring young, smart, passionate people that don't necessarily have any experience," said Jammet, noting that a number of the staff members are interns. "It's really about finding people that can grow with your organization long-term, help you build it."

Jammet offers the example of the company's project manager, Timothy Noonan, who decided to forgo a career in banking to initially take a job as the driver of the Sweetgreen food truck, Sweetflow Mobile. After building that arm of the company a year ago, he stepped up to oversee the expansion of the stores.

Not all of the Sweetgreen's corporate management is under the age of 25. Don Schaefer, director of operations, for instance, previously ran operations at Le Pain Quotidien and the Hillstone Restaurant Group.

Sweetgreen's owners also seek out the advice of experienced retailers whose business model they respect, such as Seth Goldman, founder of Bethesda-based Honest Tea.

Fresh out of college, Jammet and his friends debuted their first Sweetgreen three years ago on M Street in Georgetown at the site of a former Little Tavern. While studying business at Georgetown, the trio lamented the area's limited food options. During their senior year, they began toying with a business plan, and by the time graduation rolled around, had a few investors in place. Jammet, whose parents owned La Caravelle in New York City, interned for restaurateur Joe Bastianich, one of the investors in the eatery. Neman, meanwhile, wrote his senior thesis on the rise of Chipotle, whose made-to-order concept inspired some of the structure of Sweetgreen.

The team is putting the finishing touches on its first location outside the Beltway, a Philadelphia spot that's slated to open before the end of the year. The store's general manager was hired three months ago and moved to the District to be immersed in Sweetgreen's corporate culture. To protect the integrity of the concept, the company has no desire to franchise its operations.

"There is a certain energy that you find in a Sweetgreen," said Ru. "We want to maintain that sentimental value going forward, so that there is an emotional connection to the brand."

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