Sweetgreen wins fans with locally sourced, purpose-driven experiences

This post by Mark Kersteen originally appeared on brandchannel.com.

Why did you choose the last place you went to lunch? Was it because it was the closest, cheapest or fastest option? Or was it something fuzzier: A feeling you wanted to have again? A good memory from a previous visit? The sense that going there would be easier, healthier or just better than anywhere else?

If it’s the latter, then you’re definitely not alone. A full 94% of customers who have a low-effort service experience will buy from that same company again, and it’s expected that experience will overtake price and product as a key differentiator by 2020. The next wave of food and retail brands are putting experience first, and it’s working.

brandchannel recently sat down with Farryn Weiner, Vice President of Marketing and Brand Strategy for Sweetgreen, one of the fastest-growing brands in this category. Weiner, a Michael Kors alum and Forbes30 Under 30” marketer, told us what it takes to put experience first.

Sweetgreen, the fast casual restaurant chain serving made-to-order salads and other healthy options, has raised a total of $95 million in funding since it was founded in 2007.

With 1,700 employees across 44 (and counting) locations primarily on the East and West Coast US (with Chicago opening soon), Sweetgreen is part of a fast casual revolution being led by the likes of Shake Shack and Chipotle. Whether it’s burgers, burritos, noodles or salads, the new fast casuals are offering fresher, more adventurous options and better dining experiences for a slightly higher pricetag than their just-plain-fast counterparts.

“Every store is unique,” says Weiner. “The food is sourced locally, but so is the art and decor. The art in our Greenwich Village location (in thehistoric former Avignone Pharmacy building) is actually from our first creative director (American Two Shot founder Olivia Wolfe), for example. Every location has its own special touches that set it apart.”

Locality is central not just to Sweetgreen’s customer experience but to the business itself. It sources local ingredients in all of its markets and is developing a growing network of organic and sustainable farms across the country. And Sweetgreen is unique from its competitors in that it was founded to solve a problem: How do you “bridge the gap between health and convenience” and provide people all over the country with healthful, local food at a competitive price that fits their values?

One of the answers has been technology. Sweetgreen’s digital customer experience purposefully emulates its in-store one. The layout mimics picking out the ingredients of your salad in line at the restaurant with high-res images and self-explanatory cues that walk you through the process like a Sweetgreen team member would. A counter calculates the total number of calories in your meal as you click — providing health-conscious customers with the straightforward insights they need. The best part: You can seamlessly order and pay on the site or through the app, then pick up your meal without waiting in line. It’s the closest to frictionless you can get.

This digital experience feels like it solves for all the common annoyances one finds ordering online elsewhere: a confusing ordering process, lack of customization and a cluttered, opaque interface. That’s no accident. Sweetgreen’s digital efforts are created with real people in mind. The company closes the office five times a year to go out and meet with their teams and customers in the field, its savvy social marketing efforts include a visually engaging Tumblr feed, and its sweetlife music festival — which welcomed Blondie, Shamir and Grimes this past weekend — has been attracting music lovers (and rewarding members of its loyalty program) since 2011

“The best way to learn how improve your experience and stay relevant is by listening,” says Weiner. “We’re on a mission to build healthier communities. The more customers that we can connect with, the more of an impact we’ll make.”

Sweetgreen’s authentic and transparent approach to fast casual dining clearly resonates with its patrons — you’ll be hard-pressed to find a storefront that doesn’t have a line out the door at lunchtime. But as the company continues to grow, are these values sustainable?

“Growth is an amazing opportunity and responsibility. We’re focusing on creating intimacy as we scale, and there’s no shortcut or formula for authenticity,” says Weiner. “Building meaningful relationships takes time, effort and willingness to give without the expectation of return. Food brings people together and we’re committed to building community one customer and one team member at a time.”

By prioritizing the goal of creating healthier communities with fresh, local food, it seems like Sweetgreen’s brand experience has evolved naturally out of this mission. All the technology and design feeds into that goal, giving the company uncommonly strong focus. As Weiner says, “Being able to grow is about being able to focus.”

By having a mission-driven, seamless experience, Sweetgreen has accomplished something most of its fast casual competitors have not. Ordering from Sweetgreen feels like you’re a part of something bigger than a salad. The well-organized ordering process combined with its emphasis on local ingredients makes going there feel bespoke and intentional. You’re not just ordering a salad because it’s healthy, delicious, ethical or easy — but because it’s all of those and more.

Can other brands learn from Sweetgreen? It’s one thing to grow your company naturally around a cause, and quite another to pivot into this mindset after decades of doing things differently. We’ll have to see whether industry mainstays are able to cultivate the kinds of experiences newer purpose-led brands are building on from the start. Weiner’s advice?

“Be bold. Provide your customers the best experience. Demand it.”

This post by Mark Kersteen originally appeared on brandchannel.com.