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How Nathaniel Ru and Sweetgreen Built a Healthy, Sustainable Restaurant Chain




Well-established eateries could learn valuable lessons from Sweetgreen’s success story. This relatively new restaurant chain concentrates on offering premium salads. Many of its nutritious ingredients come from local organic farmers. Co-CEO Nathaniel Ru strives to provide healthy food and uphold altruistic values even as the company achieves rapid growth. The chain continues to open additional eateries and attract numerous customers.

Wholesome Products

Many people visit Sweetgreen because they want to purchase meals that enhance their health and have a positive impact on society. The restaurants use poultry without antibiotics; it comes from humane cage-free farms. Customers also enjoy organic vegetables that nearby farmers supply. The company never adds artificial sweeteners to its foods. Rather than retaining a single menu throughout the year, it updates the meal options to take advantage of seasonal produce.

No Headquarters

Sweetgreen’s co-founders decided not to centralize management in a single office. Instead, it maintains corporate offices in major cities on the East and West coasts. The firm doesn’t want its executives to become disconnected from patrons or the workforce. Consequently, it nearly closes the offices on several occasions throughout the year. Office employees work at Sweetgreen eateries during these time periods. This unconventional approach gives them firsthand exposure to the results of management decisions.

Modern Technology

Although people often pay with physical credit cards or money, this restaurant chain has persuaded numerous customers to utilize online payment methods. They use its smartphone software or website to purchase about one out of three meals. People earn points if they buy food with the Sweetgreen app. Users reach the “green” membership level when they spend a total of at least $100.

Educational Program

After he or she becomes a “green” customer, a person’s meal orders start to support Sweetgreen in Schools. This program helps students learn about exercise, sustainable living and nutritious food. It also works to make healthy meals more accessible. One percent of an app-based payment goes to the program. During an average year, over 1,000 youngsters benefit from enjoyable Sweetgreen in Schools activities. Most of these students live in New York City, Maryland, Virginia or the U.S. capital.

Wise Investors

These innovative concepts have helped the restaurant chain attract over $90 million in investment. Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer became one of its first financial backers. Meyer runs multiple fast-food outlets in New York City. Chef Daniel Boulud also ranks among Sweetgreen’s top investors. He owns 13 restaurants and a well-known catering firm. The chain’s biggest investor is Steve Case, an AOL co-founder.

How it Started

Nicolas Jammet, Nathaniel Ru and Jonathan Neman became friends while attending Georgetown University. After they graduated, the three men cooperated to open a new eatery. The entrepreneurs decided to do this because they noticed that few local restaurants offered nutritious menu items. They began serving meals in 2007. Although the establishment had fewer customers during the university’s winter vacation, it was able to remain in business and eventually prosper.

The three co-founders initially ran the entire organization. However, this became impossible when they started to open additional eateries and offices. Nathaniel Ru remarked that they found it difficult to delegate some responsibilities at first. Nonetheless, Sweetgreen succeeded in finding enthusiastic, loyal staff members. It currently employs more than 1,700 people. In an effort to provide top-notch customer service, the firm frequently hires outstanding employees’ friends.

Inspiring Examples

Nathaniel Ru continues to gain inspiration from fellow business owners and executives. He recently identified Little Serow as his favorite non-Sweetgreen eatery. The co-CEO praised it for creating an excellent dining experience. This small Washington, D.C. restaurant offers spicy Thai cuisine. Owner and chef Johnny Monis only serves dinner and charges each customer a flat fee.

Ru admires Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank. He applauds the Baltimore apparel manufacturer for its ethical policies. Although the Sweetgreen co-founder didn’t mention any specific UA programs or strategies, Under Armour’s website provides a number of examples. The company’s philanthropic efforts aid veterans, women and kids. For instance, it works to support youth sporting events worldwide. Under Armour also encourages executives to personally take action rather than simply telling others what to do.

About Nathaniel Ru

Ru’s parents immigrated to America and became entrepreneurs. Their positive example inspired him to start a business. He finished earning a bachelor’s degree in finance during the year when he co-founded Sweetgreen. The first restaurant occupied a small commercial space on Washington’s M Street. Ru collaborated with his fellow co-founders to identify a set of five important values that promote authenticity, fairness and sustainability. These principles still guide the business today.

Nathaniel Ru believes that each restaurant should genuinely cater to its geographic area. Rather than use a one-size-fits-all blueprint, Sweetgreen tailors its eateries to suit the preferences of local residents. Ru discussed the firm’s swift growth while speaking to an audience at the Wharton Marketing Conference in Pennsylvania. His company currently has more than 70 locations in several different regions.

Follow Ru at @nathanielru and on LinkedIn

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