Be Like the Seasons, and Change Often
The story of sweetgreen is one of evolution and innovation — we believe success is iterative. We started this business with no real experience in the food industry, and we sought to serve one of the easiest foods to mess up: simple, unprocessed produce, straight from the farmer’s market.
In 2007, we opened our doors with a simple menu comprised of fresh, local ingredients and our goal was to support the local food economy and show people what it means to eat local and with the seasons. We were young and ambitious, and had a lot to learn, but we had a vision of the future of food and the supply chain, and we mapped out what it would take to get there.
As we hired people who have far more expertise in areas like supply chain, management, operations, marketing and actually cooking food (we somehow operated without a chef for six years), we were making strides every day, across all aspects of the company to become a better, smarter sweetgreen. Today, we have a big mission to inspire healthier communities, starting with food. It’s a huge responsibility, and it means we try to constantly get better and be a paragon of excellence in a broken system. We’re working to prove that it’s possible to scale healthy fast food. It’s not easy, but it’s important.
Every day, we’re trying new things, we’re doing away with others, we’re growing our supply chain, and we’re making tweaks throughout the company that, in tandem, have huge effects. We test and learn, we look at data, we move quickly, and we focus on root causes. We discuss the future of food and sweetgreen’s role within it with a brain trust of team members, advisers, family, friends and “sweetgreen Insiders.” We make the best decisions we can for everything from our menu to our real estate, based on the information we have, and using our food ethos and core values as guardrails. We like to make bold moves, but realize you need the humility to recognize when they’re not working. “Learn forward,” we like to say.
And when we do recognize something isn’t working, we’re not afraid to change course. In the past 18 months alone, we did away with sweetflow, wraps, pressed juices and more, which made room for our seasonal menu and grain bowls. On an ingredient level, we’ve removed Sriracha (why? Because its second ingredient is sugar), we moved from canola oil to grapeseed oil, we replaced salmon with steelhead (sustainably raised in Washington), we removed wasabi peas (they’re largely cornstarch), and we reduced the sugar in all of our beverages so they adhere to Harvard nutrition guidelines. And each of these changes requires immense cross-functional teamwork to execute, from updating the website and our nutrition docs to our in-store collateral and purchase guides and recipes, all of which need to be communicated to our growing number of team members, along with the why behind the change. But it’s worth it, because we want to lead, and we lead by example.
Our constant evolution isn’t limited to the menu, either — innovation permeates every facet of the business. We’ve evolved our store design, our technology, our team structure, our impact strategy, our culture, our logo. It’s not easy to scale a business or always be innovating, but we’re doing both, simultaneously. We could throw our hands up and keep things as is, but that would be antithetical to the very reason we started this company. We have a big mission we’re working toward, and we know we’re not going to get there by accepting the status quo.
You could say we do things the hard way, but we believe it’s the right way, and we won’t compromise. No one has scaled healthy fast food before, and there’s no blueprint for it. These ongoing changes improve the experience, they improve the ways in which sweetgreen supports local food economies, and they improve the business. They make sweetgreen a bigger force for good in the food system, and they help us scale our impact. It’s a win-win-win.
Anyone who works at sweetgreen would probably tell you one of the most frustrating things about us is that we’re always changing our minds and pushing for more. They’ll also tell you it’s not something we’ve ever apologized for. We change our minds because we learn something new that makes us realize we can do better, and we have an obligation to do better. Pretty much everything about the company has changed since Day One, aside from the Guacamole Greens, our culture and our connection to local communities — and you can rest assured those aren’t going anywhere. We make decisions based on our core values and our mission, and that necessitates a lot of flexibility and change.
We like to say that we follow Mother Nature’s lead. We believe change is good, whether you’re talking about the seasons or your company. And we’ll continue our work to change the food system.
— Jonathan, Nicolas and Nathaniel