Building Intimacy at Scale

May 9, 2018 · 3 min read

sweetgreen #1 — opening day

Nathaniel Ru

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Co-Founder + Chief Brand Officer at sweetgreen

see photo above ☝️

This was taken a few hours before the opening of our first restaurant in DC — August 1st 2007. It was the moment we realized our magnetic menu boards didn’t stick to the stainless steel frames that we had spent all day installing.

That was Jon, Nic and I 10 years ago:

  • With no experience in food.
  • With a restaurant that was totally over-budget.
  • And now, with no menus…

While we didn’t always know exactly what we were doing — we did have shared a mission in the beginning. And we still have that same shared mission today: Building healthier communities by connecting people to real food.

Since 2007, we’ve been fortunate to build a company with so many talented individuals and introduce sweetgreen to communities across the country.

But as we get bigger, we frequently get asked these questions:

  • How are you going to stay special?
  • How are you going maintain that local feeling of the first restaurant in DC?
  • And most importantly, how are you going to build intimacy as you scale?

Leave People Better Than You Found Them

The answer starts with being students of the community. It’s about making one connection at a time. And for us, building intimacy at scale starts with these three lessons:

Someone once gave us this great piece of advice: People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. This is the essence of our core value — make an impact.

Any meaningful friendship, partnership or relationship takes TIME, it takes real work and a willingness to give without the expectation of return.

Over the last 10 years, there have been countless individuals who have made an impact on the three of us, who helped us along our journey. As a company we believe in paying it forward.

  • It’s remembering someone’s birthday
  • It’s writing that handwritten thank you note
  • It’s the simple surprise and delight that goes a long way.

Never Waste a Crisis

These sweet touches are powerful tools that are often free. They have a contagious way of building community in the most authentic ways.

Not only did we miss on the menu boards, but the computer that had all of Nic’s recipes was stolen out of our apartment the day before the opening. (this was before the cloud)

We learned early on — to never let a good crisis go to waste. That behind every problem there is an opportunity and more importantly a lesson.

The Small Things ARE the Big Things

And this remains true today. Our mission, to connect people to real food is a complex problem to solve at scale. It’s hard-work. But we firmly believe our mission is also our biggest competitive advantage. Our success at sweetgreen is measured by our collective ability and persistence to solve problems — with a smile.

Last, are the small moments, the subtle gestures and the nuanced details. It’s not the big moves we make, or the speed of our growth, it’s the everyday, unexpected small wins that build culture.

Everything communicates. From the way we serve guests in our restaurants to the way we show up in our communities. Our culture is strongest when we are all in-sync and set the right example as leaders.

Every smile, every small decision and every detail matters.

Today, sweetgreen is 87 restaurants in 7 cities with over 3500 team members. And even though we’re 10 years in, it still feels like day one.

Co-Founder + Chief Brand Officer at sweetgreen

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Originally published at on May 9, 2018.


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connecting people to real food since 2007.


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