Family connections helped the trio raise start-up funds from investors including Joe Bastianich, the business partner of celebrity chef Mario Batali. Peter Hapstak, the architect behind Brasserie Beck and dozens of other hip D.C. restaurants, won awards for his eco-friendly design of Sweetgreen’s first store.
The three raised significant money to start the business, but they didn’t spend much on marketing. They didn’t need to—the story of three young guys starting a sustainable salad store was too delicious to pass up. Zagats, Fast Casual, and other food-industry organs wrote about Sweetgreen before it even opened. A month later, The Washington Post ran a glowing review, singing the praises of the chain’s Guacamole Greens salad and frozen yogurt: “Sweetgreen’s team has already delivered on its promise of fast, healthful food to go.” Business at Sweetgreen’s Georgetown location spiked.
In the restaurant business, success can be elusive—even for the well-connected. In March 2009, Sweetgreen opened its second store just off Dupont Circle with an additional $780,000 from private investors. The Great Recession was in full swing. Customers were scarce.
“The only thing we could think of was attracting people through music,” says Ru, a tall guy who wears his hair a bit shaggier than the average young-enterpriser type. So Ru and Neman walked down Connecticut Avenue to The Guitar Shop and bought a $300 amp. They plugged in Neman’s iPod and queued up some Daft Punk. It wasn’t a good fit. “Due to the older crowd around that day, [it was] not getting a good reaction,” Neman says.
So they switched to mainstream indie rock, working in oldies like “Son of a Preacher Man,” too. It turned out to be a perfect salad-eating soundtrack. “It attracted people,” says Ru. “It made people say, ‘Maybe this is more than just a salad place.’”
Starting with that amp, Sweetgreen began producing successively larger music events. U.S. Royalty and Matthew Hemerlein played store openings and block parties. In January, they rang in the New Year with Rob Myers, of Thievery Corporation, at their Reston store. Toro y Moi, a critically acclaimed electropop artist, serenaded lunch crowds at the Logan Circle store in April, and Walk the Moon and The Givers played in-store sets this month.
Last summer, Sweetgreen threw its first multi-band event in the parking lot next to their Dupont Circle store. And this year, the Sweetlife Festival upgraded to Merriweather, one of the region’s largest music venues, with a capacity of nearly 20,000 people.
“I remember I was at [Neman’s] house when he brought up the idea they wanted to do a festival and get The Strokes,” says Jacob Michael, the bassist for U.S. Royalty. “I thought he was crazy; I thought he was out of his mind.”
Booking one of the most influential rock bands in recent memory was an ambitious goal, but it turned out to be rather do-able, even for a comparatively puny business. The total cost of the 10 bands at the festival, according to booking estimates, could easily have totaled $350,000. But where Neman, Ru, and Jammet’s hipster-networking moxy came into play was convincing some of their suppliers, including Stonyfield, Honest Tea, and Applegate Farms, to help foot the bill.
It was a pretty appealing offer: For a chunk of their marketing budget, the firms got to position themselves on the cool side of American culture. Sweetlife filled out the lineup with ostensibly up-and-coming musicians, including mash-up artist Girl Talk, electro-screamers Crystal Castles, and rapper Lupe Fiasco. “We made bets on people who are going to get bigger,” Neman says. “We want Sweetlife to be the first place people saw them.”
Of course, the groups had one other thing in common: None of them was all that edgy. The guys had learned the lesson of the amp very well.
Getting into music is a smart move for a fledgling brand like Sweetgreen, says Rajeev Batra, a business professor at the University of Michigan. “People identify very deeply with their musical choices,” Batra says. “If a brand is able to link itself to a musical event, style, or performer, they can connect deeply with consumers, potentially building greater engagement and emotional loyalty.”
All the same, the scrappy, state-school crowd at the Sweetlife Festival isn’t the same one you see at a Sweetgreen store. The typical lunch crowd at Sweetgreen’s Dupont store, for instance, seems to consist mostly of professional women, age 25 to 35. There’s a reason Gnarls Barkley is on the store soundtrack, and Crystal Castles are out at the festival. But then again, appealing to the younger rock-show types, marketing folks say, can still win you some cultural legitimacy in the eyes of the $9 salad set.