Good Eats + Fresh Beats
A Brief History of the sweetlife Festival
“Daft Punk or Hot Chip?”
This was the biggest debate we had as Georgetown seniors before opening our first restaurant in 2007. We were discussing the first song we would play when we opened our doors.
The three of us met in college and bonded over music and food. When we decided to open a restaurant, we wanted to create one that stood for so much more than just food. And because we understood the power of music — its ability to connect to people emotionally, to bring people from all different backgrounds and to add context to every occasion — we knew music would be a powerful vehicle for us. Like food, music is a universal language, and one that doesn’t need words to be understood or appreciated.
A year and a half after opening our first location in Georgetown, we opened our second one, a few miles away in Dupont Circle. sweetgreen Dupont was three times bigger and three times more expensive to build than our original space. Doors opened in April of 2009, right in the middle of the recession and toward the end of an unusually long and cold winter in DC. And unlike when we opened in Georgetown, no one showed up on opening day. It was very scary and incredibly humbling, and all three of us wondered if we’d need to go get real jobs.
In the early days of sweetgreen, we learned something that’s stuck with us ever since: Never waste a crisis. We looked at our empty space, and we looked outside at Dupont Circle and the bustling streets around it. We realized that this wasn’t a crisis of no-shows, it was an opportunity to infuse music into this brand in the way we had always envisioned. We drove to Guitar Center, bought a big speaker and set up a folding table on the sidewalk. We started playing music and handed out samples, using the power of music, good energy and great food to bring people together and build a community.
And it worked. Well, not right away, but after 3 or 4 consecutive weeks of setting up and DJing in front of the restaurant, we started getting attention. We connected to the local community, met our neighbors and had a lot of fun.
In 2010, we kicked things up a notch, hosting a block party near Dupont, and 500 people came. In 2011, we moved to Merriweather Post Pavilion, called it the sweetlife Festival and grew the audience to 10,000. The next year, 15,000. Then 18,000, then 20,000, and the audience grew to 22,000 last year.
We’ve had big names and about-to-break-out bands play the sweetlife stage — the Strokes, Lana Del Rey, Kendrick Lamar, Haim, The Weeknd, Tove Lo, Calvin Harris — and we’ve invited our local chef friends to make great festival food. Every year, the festival combines our favorite up-and-coming bands with our favorite food as we celebrate the sweetlife, and our commitment to a life of passion and purpose. For us, the sweetlife festival reminds us of our roots, it reminds us that food makes music better, and music makes food better, and that both, together, can build community. And it reminds us that you can have a party with a purpose, that you can have fun and be healthy. We look forward to the festival every year, and we can’t wait to do it again on May 14, with proceeds going to our sweetgreen in schools program. It’s a party with a purpose, which is the best kind.
— Jonathan Neman, co-founder and CEO
P.S. In case you were wondering, the first song we played was Robot Rock by Daft Punk.
Ed’s Note: As of January 27, 2017, sweetgreen is no longer hosting the sweetlife Festival, but the sweetlife lives on through other experiences—head to sweetlifefestival.com for more information.