When it comes to eating, most college students tend to be creatures of habit, victims of circumstance, or both; usually this means subsisting on rations of ramen, cheeseburgers, and whatever they can fit on a cafeteria tray.
But Nicolas Jammet, Jonathan Neman and Nathaniel Ru—the founders of Sweetgreen—aren’t most college students. While studying at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., they were dismayed by the lack of local, fresh, healthy dining options. Rather than sitting around and waiting for someone else to step in, they founded a restaurant of their own in 2007—the same year they graduated.
"We were all seniors in college, and it started out as something we all really wanted but didn’t exist," says co-founder Jonathan Neman. "We lived a healthy, balanced lifestyle, but couldn’t find [a local restaurant] that fit our needs. So from the very beginning, we were designing a business that we wanted for ourselves."
The initial D.C. restaurant opened a month after graduation and combined fresh pressed juices and locally sourced vegetables under a modern aesthetic. Its success grew out of a philosophy based on healthy food, building relationships with local farmers, sustainability, and fun.
Half a decade later, that philosophy has yielded 17 more locations, with more to come in Boston (later this month), and in New York City (in the hotel NoMad Hotel this summer and in Tribeca this winter). The menu is standard across all locations, but the provenance of the foods is unique (and as local as possible) to each. Visitors can enjoy knowing precisely where the components of their Spicy Sabzi salads come from, and they can build their own dishes.
And for the past four years, Sweetgreen has produced its Sweetlife music festival. The most recent event on May 11, 2013, featured such stars as Kendrick Lamar, Phoenix, Passion Pit, Solange, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The founders see the event as an extension of the philosophy that health and fun can go hand in hand.
"Usually notions of fun and health are mutually exclusive. You don’t think of a music festival as a healthy day. It’s usually beer and fried food, and you’re not really having any social impact," says Neman. "But we bring together music and healthy, local food, and invite kids from district schools." As part of Sweetgreen’s educational outreach initiatives, they not only teach children about healthy food, but also invite local student bodies to attend the festival.
What’s next? Well, more locations. But the founders, who cite brands like Patagonia as inspirations, believe that the best way to grow is slowly.
"We want to be a national brand, we want to have a really big impact," says Jammet. "But whether that means 100 stores or 1,000, what it really means is being connected to more small communities."