Co-founders Nic Jammet, Jonathan Neman and Nathaniel Ru started with one Sweetgreen restaurant in 2007 and have 10 today. (Marvin Joseph/WASHINGTON POST)

In the old days — way back in 2008 — it was easy for Nic Jammet to procure local ingredients for Sweetgreen, his hip, new salad and frozen yogurt joint. Whether it was blackberries or butternut squash, he picked up what he needed on Sundays at the FreshFarm Market at Dupont Circle, right outside the restaurant’s back door.

Sweetgreen turned four this year. It has 10 stores in the District, Maryland, Virginia and even Philadelphia that last month went through 30,000 pounds of lettuce, 2,000 pounds of eggplant and 900 pounds of goat cheese. Those numbers make local sourcing a lot more complicated.

Another chain might have taken the easy route: dial Sysco, a national food-distribution behemoth. But Jammet and his fellow Georgetown University classmates Nathaniel Ru and Jonathan Neman founded Sweetgreen with an idealistic agenda: to provide sustainable, healthful food at fair prices. That eco-friendly ethos had been built into the brand, from the green-leaf pattern on the walls of each store to the chalkboard menus of seasonal ingredients and the biodegradable cutlery. If Sweetgreen were to succeed, big couldn’t mean business as usual. The three partners are proving it is possible to scale sustainable food.

It’s easy to paint Sweetgreen’s founders as sustainable-food wunderkinds; the three 26-year-olds fit the part. Jammet comes from a well-connected New York restaurant family: His parents owned Manhattan’s La Caravelle, which closed in 2001, and Sweetgreen counts Stonyfield Farm’s Gary Hirshberg, Honest Tea’s Seth Goldman and New York restaurant entrepreneur Joe Bastianich as advisers and investors. In meetings, the partners talk a lot about branding, synergy and the power of social media.

At an interview at their newest store, in Foggy Bottom, only Neman wore dress shoes; Jammet and Ru sported flannel shirts, jeans and Converse sneakers, a look more Mark Zuckerberg than slick restaurant entrepreneur. 

Jammet, Neman and Ru admit that they stumbled into sustainable food. The trio had taken an entrepreneurship class as business majors at Georgetown. The Sweetgreen concept, Neman says, “was the answer to a problem that we saw”: the lack of fast, affordable, healthful food available to students.

Planning began in earnest in early 2007, the second semester of their senior year. Jammet’s first call was to a Laurel distributor, Keany Produce.

“One of their newest salespeople arrived with a case of lettuce and a case of snap peas. And we had to move all the beer over to get it in the fridge,” Jammet says with a laugh. “I think she was thinking to herself, ‘Who are these guys?’ ”

That was certainly company vice president Ted Keany’s initial reaction. But after a debut on M Street NW in fall 2007, Sweetgreen showed itself to be a serious customer. “When they opened in Georgetown, there was a line around the block. They bought $1,200 to $1,400 worth of product that first week,” Keany says. “All of a sudden, we wanted to know: Who are these guys?”

Between 35 and 45 percent of Sweetgreen’s produce comes from national organic partners that can deliver throughout the year. Its greens come year-round from California’s Earthbound Farm. (“We’re a salad bar,” says Jammet. “We can’t ever, like, not have greens.”) Bell & Evans provides antibiotic-free chicken. Shrimp is wild-caught in Mississippi. Stonyfield supplies the organic frozen yogurt.

The chain’s fast growth has posed challenges for sourcing local ingredients. With each new store, it became more difficult for Jammet to pick up fresh food at the market or to persuade farmers to make multiple deliveries. “Just imagine Georgetown,” says Mike Koch, president of FireFly Farms on Maryland’s Allegheny Plateau, which supplies goat cheese to Sweetgreen. “You’re in traffic. There’s no place to park, and if you’re in a van, you’re just hosed. Now imagine doing this at six or seven stores. We did it for a few months. It was pretty painful.”

Like Keany, though, Koch was eager to keep Sweetgreen’s business. Firefly sells about 20 percent of its cheese to the restaurant chain, more in months like this past October when goat cheese is featured in Sweetgreen’s rotating seasonal salad. But he didn’t want to pay the standard 20 percent fee to a distributor. Jammet arranged for Firefly to drop off its cheese weekly at Keany’s central warehouse; from there, it is trucked to individual stores along with other items.

If that doesn’t sound revolutionary, think again. It’s precisely those kinds of seemingly ordinary logistics that allow businesses like Sweetgreen to grow. At Jammet’s request, Keany now picks up feta cheese at Mountain View Farm in Fairfield, Va., north of Lexington. At Keany’s suggestion, Jammet now buys blackberries from the distributor’s longtime purveyor, Westmoreland Berry Farm in Colonial Beach, Va., instead of a smaller producer that required a special trip.

Sweetgreen’s goal is to source 85 percent of its produce organically and locally. Today, depending on the time of year, between 25 percent and 40 percent is local — far more than in the early days, when it was limited to the sources at farmers markets. “It’s a win-win-win,” says Jammet. “It’s better for us because we get one delivery. It’s better for the farmers because they can spend time farming, not on the road. And it’s better for Keany, who gets more business.”

Sourcing wasn’t Sweetgreen’s only challenge. As the number of stores has grown, the company has streamlined its menu and the number of ingredients on offer, which allows for “more focus on hospitality and less on the chaos in the back,” says Neman. It also lets Sweetgreen spend more money on higher-quality ingredients its shops can use up quickly with minimal waste. In the four years since it launched, Sweetgreen has raised prices only once, increasing the basic salad from $6 to $6.35.

“You hear a lot of stories about people who are going to open 10 restaurants, and most of them don’t,” says Ted Keany. “These guys have really got it going on.” FireFly’s Koch calls Sweetgreen “the next Starbucks.”

Sweetgreen’s founders hope to take their concept national. But they have no fixed plans about where and how quickly that will happen. For now, it makes more sense, they say, to concentrate in areas where they have established relationships with small farms and distributors. Their next store will open in College Park early next year. The company also is looking at new locations in Philadelphia.

“We want to grow consciously,” says Neman. “It’s the only way to grow smart.”

Former Food staffer Black’s Smarter Food column appears monthly. Follow her on Twitter: @jane_black.