“They have never had a delicious salad,” Jammet adds.
As the meeting wraps up, Northup asks Jammet for her organization’s check from the Sweetlife Festival. A portion of the proceeds will go to D.C. Farm to School as well as the Jamie Oliver Foundation, which has a similar mission. Sweetgreen wouldn’t disclose how much they’d raised. “Sorry, we haven’t closed the books yet,” Jammet says. “We are still decompressing.”
Neman, Jammet, and Ru don’t look like they need to decompress. The three 26-year-olds are fit, tan, and confident, and they all exude a laid-back intensity that you rarely see outside of Owen Wilson movies. They also comprise a mix of ethnicities that would be the envy of a Benetton ad. But if you close your eyes, they’re hard to tell apart. All three speak with lazy surfer vowels and employ MBA phrases like “brand halo.”
In addition to co-owning a business, Ru and Neman share a house near the 9:30 Club; city property records say the modern rowhouse was purchased last December for $919,000 by Ru, Neman, and Neman’s brother. Jammet lives across the street. Sometimes they commute to work together, Neman on an eco-friendly bamboo skateboard, Ru on his fixed-gear Sweetgreen bike, and Jammet on his Peugeot. The hectic work schedules make other relationships tricky, Jammet says: “Sweetgreen is our significant other.”
After the meeting about getting salad to poor kids, the rest of a day with that significant other involves a TV interview (Neman had to shush the prep cooks as he did an in-store interview with WRC-TV’s Wendy Rieger; on camera, he extols the deliciousness of his store’s salads), a welcome-aboard meal with a new crop of interns (the interns get their own versions of that silicon Sweetgreen bracelet), and some time for instructing interns on how to run the corporate Twitter and Facebook feeds (one intern’s winning post idea: “Knowledge is knowing the tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put the tomato in the fruit salad.”).
Late in the day, they have a more serious meeting, with marketing consultant Charlie Jones. Cue the MBA-speak: “You guys, at your most dangerous, market to yourselves,” Jones says. “You should be asking yourself about broader appeal, designing an experience for somebody else.”
It’s a message they’ve heard before. “They are selling a product that’s more expensive than the typical lunch, and they are up against much larger, better funded, huge restaurants and corporations,” says Seth Goldman, the president of Honest Tea and a Sweetgreen investor. Goldman says the business is at a point where expansion is going to get a lot trickier.
On the other hand, do you think of The Strokes when you pass a Chop’t storefront? Didn’t think so.
Back at Merriweather, the farmers market is limping along as The Strokes take the stage. It’s been this way all day: Long lines at the generic burrito cart, not much action at the tent serving Sweetgreen’s own salad. Maybe it’s not so easy to convert people to the sweet life—or at least the part of it that involves eating quinoa salad while rocking.
“We heard the salad line was long in the beginning of the day,” Jammet says later. “Maybe people, later in the day, got drunker and started wanting burritos.”
With the monotone vocals of “Is This It” saturating the air, the guy manning the produce stand seems vexed by piles of unsold strawberries. He offers me two cartons for $4, then quickly drops the price to $1 each. “Come on,” he says. “My bosses are here. Don’t make me look bad.”
The link between hip music and sustainable food, admits Ru, may not be quite as obvious to others as it is to Sweetgreen’s founders. “Next year, we are going to make sure it’s not just a Strokes concert or a big party, but make sure it connects back to the idea of natural, sustainable food,” he says. Still, the concert was a success, with 90 percent of tickets selling, and a total attendance of about 15,000.
And for all the culinary pretensions, it’s easy to see how large portions of those 15,000 people could walk away with a different message. For instance, inside the gates, there’s almost as much stress on marketing something you can’t eat: smartphone apps. A live Twitter feed on a large screen encourages festivalgoers to post some 9,000 #sweetlife tweets. It ultimately overloads nearby AT&T towers. The message is not food, but Sweetlife itself. “To some extent, I’m glad we overloaded the towers,” says Peter Corbett, CEO of iStrategyLabs, the company contracted by Sweetgreen to “be the social experience agency for the festival.”
Together, the two companies social-market the hell out of Sweetlife. In addition to the now-standard Facebook page and Twitter feeds, the festival has three official smartphone apps. Over the course of the afternoon, somewhere between 500 and 1,000 Sweetlife attendees install Color, a photo social-networking app, on their iPhones, using it to play a massive game of iSpy—taking photos of, for instance, “someone living the Sweetlife,” or “the sweetest smile.” The first three people to answer win VIP bracelets, giving them access to a side-stage area with unlimited Popchips and a shortcut to the front of the pavilion. Corbett later tells me that more people used the app to take pictures of the festival than April’s royal wedding.
Only time will tell how Sweetgreen’s founders will capitalize on their festival’s brilliant tribe-building and social marketing. But one thing is clear: They have more on their agendas than simply promoting sustainable food.
“Over time, this whole region and probably the whole country will know about Sweetgreen and Sweetlife,” Goldman says. It’s hard not to agree: After nine hours at the show, I realize I haven’t gone 30 seconds all day without seeing one of those two words.
“Next year, we’re going even bigger,” Neman says.