Sweetgreen's Sweet Spot How were three guys with a salad joint able to hire the Strokes?

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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.’”

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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.

Our Readers Say

Nemo you are amazing! Love SweetGreen!
I work for one of the companies that were roped into being sponsors of "the Sweetlife Festival" and let me tell you - it was greenwashing at it's worst.

The organizers of Sweetlife were a bunch of pushy hired marketing suits who were hellbent on micro-managing the festival (which was lame at best) from start to finish.

Big brands with mega-marketing budgets like Stonyfield (Dannon) and Honest Tea (CocoCola)were roped into footing the bill Sweetgreed's self promotion circle jerk for the privilege of looking cool and edgy, while non-profits with minimal budgets were left holding the bag (of rotten strawberries) when they quickly learned that no one at the concert gave a crap about sustainable food, they were just there to drink beer and see the Stokes (at $50 per ticket, and how much for the pathetic VIP package?!).

It's no surprise to read that months later Sweetgreed still hasn't cut a check for D.C. Farm to School. Funny, their books seemed to be in order when they were cashing sponsorship checks...
Hi Anon,

While Sweetlife festival wasn't up to your expectations, I do want to say that Sweetgreen has been a good partner to the D.C. Farm to School Network. Unfortunately, the article misconstrues our meeting a little bit. Yes, I am a foot taller than Nic. But I only asked for a sweetgreen gift card after going through how excited my colleague and I are to put in many, many hours of work to perfect the curriculum and educational materials for the Sweetgreen in Schools program.

Since that's cleared up, I'll add that sweetgreen has also donated delicious food for our programs, thousands of stickers for our Strawberries & Salad Greens event, and a "mock salad bar" for a school food service training (among other things). Nic has been nothing but great to work with, and look forward to more partnerships with sweetgreen in the future.

We're still waiting for that final check though, but us non-profits are pretty patient ;)
anon,

"the priveledge of looking cool" is what marketing is all about, and it's why brands pay for the priveledge of being on display in front of their target demographics
And another thing to clear up - we already did get two checks from sponsors at the festival (totaling $2,400, which is no small change in this line of work) and I hear the final one from sweetgreen is on its way.
can we talk about how good that choco-novo Honest Tea stuff is? bangin'.
rain was sucky, but all the trustafarians love feeling like they're at woodstock
I'm curious why if DC Farm to School's mission is to spread healthy eating awarenesss, etc, why was their first choice to go to a school that already has a successful program of that ilk?

I'm all for health food and charity, but these people sound utterly insufferable. If the "sweet life" is talking about how honest and simple you are while paying $6.35 for a salad in your $100 designer yoga pants, I'll pass.
These guys are all amazing! Easy on the hateraide Anon. I can't wait for next year!
Dear HGB,

That quote was taken a little out of context - I suggested that Sweetgreen in Schools work with Marie Reed Elementary School (http://profiles.dcps.dc.gov/Marie+Reed+Elementary+School) which has 89% of students eligible for free and reduced price meals and 59% ESL students. This is because I know some of the folks at Kid Power, who run their after-school program. But because Kid Power already does a wonderful "veggie time" program with the kids their around nutrition and healthy eating, we decided to choose another school that didn't have nutrition education programming in place. Check out our website - you'll see that we work with all sorts of schools (www.dcfarmtoschool.org).
I just want to thank Sweetgreen for bringing The Strokes back into town - I have been waiting since 2006 to see them in this area and they didn't disappoint. Even Julian said that it was the best crowd they'd played to so far in their tour - and he seriously NEVER says that. I was there in line at 7am and I don't regret it at all.
Who is on the lineup for next year?!?! Let's make this an annual event!!!

It was a great experience and with any festival, improvements are needed and made on an annual basis. Next time they need to plan a bit better with regard to edible inventory, but a festival like this will always be well received by a true fan.

Sweetlife 2012 Lineup:

The Strokes
The Arcade Fire
Daft Punk
Deadmau5

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