Sweetgreen Co-Founder Nicolas Jammet Says Culture ‘Is Our Whole Business.’ Here’s Why

Nicolas Jammet.
Nicolas Jammet. Photo: Getty Images.

The salad chain started with a bit of naivet, innovated on supply chains, and today fosters an entrepreneurial culture inside each of its 200 locations.

Coming from a family of restaurateurs, Nicholas Jammet knew restaurants were low-margin, challenging businesses. He launched the salad chain Sweetgreen anyway. Straight out of Georgetown University in 2007, Jammet and his two co-founders felt that something like Sweetgreen “needed to exist,” and they had a simple reason.

“We were sick of eating at the cafeteria,” Jammet said during a panel conversation at the Inc. Founders House at the South by Southwest Conference in Austin on Saturday. “We saw this opportunity to build a brand that could create food that made you feel good, that was good for the earth, but also was a cool brand.” Having confidence that three recent college grads could start a business with all three of those attributes admittedly required some naivet, according to Jammet, but that didn’t end up hurting the brand in the long run.

“That naivet and lack of life experience, a lot of the time, proved to be a good thing,” he said. “Because we didn’t just look around and say, ‘This is how you do it, let’s do it that way.'” Coming up with their own methods, such as building local supply chains and enabling advance ordering via an app early on, also led Jammet and co-founders Nathaniel Ru and Jonathan Neman to a realization about the importance of establishing a culture of service in their company.

“The culture in our restaurants is our whole business,” Jammet said. “The restaurants that have the tightest teams, the best culture, the happiest engagements, and the best tenure perform the best from an economic-model point-of-view. So it is in our best interest to make sure we are doing as much as we can to have a strong culture in our restaurants.”

Sweetgreen has 5,000 employees who cut vegetables, make dressings, and roast meats in around 200 restaurants, and Jammet says one of the company’s priorities is fostering an entrepreneurial micro-environment in every location. He added that it’s his job to ensure each restaurant has a “culture of development,” in which training allows individuals to advance in their careers, and in which local managers feel empowered.

“A lot of our managers are in their early 20s, running a multimillion-dollar restaurant!” he said. “It’s like they’re running their own little business. It’s our responsibility and job to enable them with the tools.”