In most restaurants, the menu is dictated by customers’ and chefs’ tastes. At sweetgreen, it’s all about the farmers. “We don’t go to farmers and say, ‘Hey, we want you to grow this and this,’” explains Nicolas Jammet, cofounder of the salad chain with a cult-like following. “We say, ‘Hey, what do you grow in this region? What makes sense?’ It’s not the farmers trying to serve us, it’s us trying to serve them.”
This approach fits perfectly into what sweetgreen calls its “food ethos,” a sort of business manifesto that rests on all ingredients being sourced locally and sustainably, and then prepared fresh in-house, never in some commercial kitchen. And whether it’s the fresh, seasonal ingredients or the impeccably designed interior of each store, sweetgreen is doing something right. The salad chain, which began as a single store in Washington, D.C. in 2007, now has nearly 50 locations across the country where veggie-craving customers line up at lunchtime. But it takes some serious creativity to keep salads interesting, while making both farmers and customers happy. Here’s how Jammet and his cofounders do it with new and unusual ingredients:
Because sweetgreen wants to work with seasonable ingredients, the menu varies by location, and the company spends a lot of time building a separate supply chain in each city. “Before we open a store in a new city, we’re there like a year before trying to understand the whole market, what people eat and what they grow,” Jammet says. He and his team go on farm visits to meet and chat with the people growing their vegetables, and sometimes they stumble on new ideas while out in the fields. For example, a few years ago, while on a team visit to a broccoli farm in California, Jammet realized that the broccoli head is only a small part of the entire plant. The big leaves that make up the majority of the vegetable get removed and discarded. To the sweetgreen guys, that seemed super wasteful, especially since broccoli leaves are edible and pack tons of nutrition. So they asked if they could buy the farmer’s leaves and incorporated them into the local menu. “This created an extra source of revenue for the farmer, and it let us talk to our customers about a new ingredient,” Jammet says. “We love kale, we serve kale, but that’s not the end-all-be-all of healthy ingredients. You know? If we can help our guests think differently about food or what it means to eat healthy, we celebrate that.”
Back in 2014, when the company wanted to give customers another protein option, they turned to seafood. More specifically, they started researching sources for farm-raised salmon. Then Jammet read a book called Four Fish by Paul Greenberg that changed his whole seafood philosophy. “Four Fish is about how we as society are obsessed with salmon, bass, cod, and tuna, and we overfish to the point where there’s none left indigenously in our region and we’re forced to source from all over world, where they’re grown in ways that are not regulated.” He encouraged the entire sweetgreen food and beverage team to pick up the book, and together they decided to look beyond the big four. Enter steelhead, a trout species that’s free of antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides, and is raised sustainably in the Columbia River in upstate Washington.
Before a new ingredient hits sweetgreen menus across the country, it starts in the Washington, D.C. Dupont Circle restaurant, which is a live testing environment. “We built our head chef another kitchen downstairs where he can test things,” Jammet says. “Sometimes he’s testing new ingredients, or a new way to cut something. We even do pricing tests there.” So when steelhead trout had its debut in the Dupont test kitchen, employees spent time talking with customers about the fish to gauge their reaction.
With anything new, you run the risk of it being too unfamiliar, or too weird. But because steelhead looks and tastes similar to salmon, it was easy for customers to make the mental leap. And a bit of clever marketing helped. The campaign slogan is “There Are Other Fish In The Sea,” which was splashed across posters and menus, along with literature explaining why steelhead was such a good option. “There are other incredible fish we could have served here, but we wanted to make sure we were spending time picking the fish we thought our customers could connect with and trust,” Jammet says. “So steelhead is one we spent a lot of time testing and tasting and we loved it.” This winter, sweetgreen introduced steelhead in all its locations nationwide. While it ships all fish from Washington state, it’s still more local than sourcing it from Chile, which is where sweetgreen sourced its salmon originally.
Jammet sees food innovation as iterative, and hopes that as sweetgreen introduces new, sustainable ingredients to its customers, it will have a trickle-down effect across the food industry. “It makes us feel better, it makes the customer feel better, but it creates this standard, this expectation that consumers are requiring and demanding,” he says. “And when that is required by everyone in food, it’s going to change the way we produce it and grow it. We get really excited about helping reframe how people think about food.”