The thickening mist has the college-age kids in the Merriweather Post Pavilion parking lot worried.
“Is there an umbrella in there?” says a bare-shouldered concertgoer. She’s sitting on the ground, wrapped in a blanket. “We’ve got two,” chirps her friend, who’s still optimistically wearing sunglasses.
It’s 1:30 p.m., and the tailgaters don’t appear to be in any hurry to get into the Sweetlife Festival, where U.S. Royalty is currently playing the big stage. The real draws, they say, are the acts scheduled for later this afternoon: Crystal Castles, Girl Talk, and, of course, The Strokes.
“The beer in there is $9, so you want get a buzz going out here first,” explains the bare-shouldered fan.
Inside, though, the organizers have other refreshments on tap—plenty of them available for free. On a ridge behind the lawn seats, a pair of affable guys dispenses Honest Tea while pitching fans on the beverage’s health benefits. Nearby, concertgoers queue up for samples of Stonyfield Farms Greek yogurt. Many of them may have already gotten a taste of the Lara Bars and Pirate’s Booty being handed out by representatives of MOM’s Organic Market. In the same tent, a face painter is busily decorating a long line of young faces: Options include recycling icons, wind turbines, and, of course, MOM’s logos.
“We’ve been in line for an hour,” says a 19-year-old kid named Tosin, tightening his hoodie around his unpainted face. It’s beginning to rain.
Still, even the unhappy music fans have something to be glad about. Somewhere in the face-painting line, a concertgoer expresses displeasure with how far his $40 seats are from the stage. “This is a soggy rip-off,” he declares. And then, a second later: “Let’s get more yogurt.”
There’s also plenty of promotion going on in a fenced-off VIP area. Here, a fetching young bartender is serving up samples of yet another Honest Tea product, a new cacao-bean brew called “CocaNova.” “It’s got all the antioxidants of chocolate,” she explains.
Meanwhile, a scruffy guy offers passersby a chance to try on silly hats—while sampling Popchips, a fluffy, low-fat potato chip.
As summertime festival concerts go, Sweetlife is pretty ordinary. As a marketing exercise, on the other hand, it’s brilliant.
Especially when you consider that its namesake and main organizer—the outfit that stands to benefit from associating with rock stars and the coveted youth demographic—is a 4-year-old salad chain with a measly nine stores to its name. Sure, BlackBerry may be bankrolling U2’s current tour, and T-Mobile might be bringing you the Blink-182 reunion, but Sweetgreen, founded in 2007 by a trio of 21-year-olds, employs a few hundred people, as compared to the tens of thousands working for the telecom giants. With that sort of size, it seems downright miraculous to see Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, trot out on stage in his sweatband and hoodie to shout, “Hello, Sweetlife Festival!”
For the guys who started Sweetgreen, the rock show is no happy accident. Rather, it’s part of their grand plan—a plan that says a lot about how we buy food and how we think about music these days. Like the other brands seeking to establish themselves by handing out freebies of natural ice tea, Sweetgreen’s founders are using their cultural sponsorship to woo a generation of consumers. Only instead of hiring promo folks in nice T-shirts, they hired The Strokes.
Sweetgreen’s founding legend is a compelling one. Jonathan Neman, Nic Jammet, and Nathaniel Ru, all Georgetown University business majors, say they couldn’t find anywhere to eat near campus that was both healthy and inexpensive. So they started an eatery themselves, opening up shop in a Lilliputian M Street NW space opposite the apartment Neman shared with Ru.
Like any inspiring story, Sweetgreen’s involves overcoming some hurdles. The tiny store didn’t have plumbing or electricity; its owner didn’t want to rent it to neophytes. But the guys, having decided to forego the investment banking jobs that many of their classmates had snagged, were determined. “I called every day for weeks,” Neman says. Opening up just ahead of the salad-and-tart-yogurt trends, they’ve since expanded to nine restaurants in three states and the District. Regularly logging 15-hour days, they plan to open eight more locations in the next year.
Of course, there are some details that don’t quite fit into that narrative. For one thing, the guys say their favorite restaurant during their undergrad days was José Andrés’ Café Atlántico—hardly an example of cheap eats for starving students. It also leaves out their parents.
“We all come from families that are entrepreneurs, and I think we all value that innovative, entrepreneurial spirit,” says Neman, a smallish guy with a tall, asymmetrical haircut. “We’re all first-generation immigrants, too.”
The immigrant roots, though, are not of the scrappy, bootstraps-pulling variety. Neman’s family, which fled Iran in 1979, runs a multi-million dollar textile business. Ru’s father, an immigrant from Taiwan, had a successful import-export concern that traded in “promotional items,” like magnets and stickers. And Jammet’s parents, Swiss and French, owned La Caravelle, the midtown Manhattan restaurant where Kennedys and Rockefellers regularly dined.