“I love the momentum. It’s almost like a drug for me.“ – Nathaniel Ru
Dan: Episode 048 of Prologue Profiles, Bringing you inspiring interviews with passionate people, pursuing their career dreams. I’m your host Dan Feld. My guest today is Nathaniel Ru.
While at college Nathaniel met his future co-founders, Jonathan Neman and Nicolas Jammet, and the 3 of them wanted to create a destination for healthy eating. In 2007, during their senior year they did just that with their launch of sweetgreen – a healthy fast food eatery in Washington DC.
Six years later sweetgreen now has 20 locations with their most recent expansion in the NoMad hotel in New York City. Along the way the trio have also created the sweetlife festival which this year had performances from Phoenix and Kendrick Lamar.
You’ll hear Nathaniel discuss how they got sweetgreen and sweetlife off the ground, how to overcome having zero customers, and that if you’re going into the unknown, that probably means you’re on the right track.
Nathaniel: Hi, this is Nathaniel Ru. I’m a food & lifestyle entrepreneur, and you’re listening to Prologue Profiles.
Nathaniel: To give you some context, we are sitting in the basement of sweetgreen which is connected to the kitchen of the NoMad Hotel through a secret underground tunnel. So, as weird as it might seem, it’s kind of a cool little area to be hanging out in for an interview.
Dan: So Nathaniel, what is sweetgreen?
Nathaniel: sweetgreen is farmer table fast food. It was started August 1st, 2007. Originally it was just a solution to a problem. We couldn’t find anywhere healthy to eat while we were in school and we wanted to solve this problem, specifically in D.C. first and then think about the rest of the country.
Dan: And what’s the idea behind sweetgreen?
Nathaniel: So sometimes when you think about eating healthy it’s expensive, it’s complicated, it’s a little bit overwhelming and we wanted to figure out a way to make that decision-making easier for people. We wanted to create a destination where you could eat healthy and it could also be delicious and it could also be fun and there could be a cool design element in the space and it didn’t have to be so granola or so hippy and we wanted to create an environment that was a destination and more than just the convenience.
Dan: And what kind of food are we getting at sweetgreen?
Nathaniel: We like to say there’s no special sauce to it. It’s 100% just ingredient driven. And you can see it. The whole idea is ordering with your eyes and kind of seeing what’s fresh and what’s in season and a big part of our concept is working with the farmers and building relationships with them so it’s a win-win.
Dan: So how big are you guys right now?
Nathaniel: sweetgreen is 20 stores, about 500 employees. The way we grow our business is a function of two things: one is finding great real estate and then two, more importantly, is finding great people. So if we can find great people and great real estate, we’ll open a store but we’re never going to put a number of restaurants that we have to do in a certain year just to hit a number.
Dan: So Nathaniel, let’s talk about how you got here. What was the path you took to get to this point? Where does it all start for you?
Nathaniel: It really started from my family. My dad’s an entrepreneur. He started to import/export business in LA. And I grew up watching him. And the interesting thing is that all three of our parents are entrepreneurs so there’s a little bit of that in our DNA.
Dan: And how’d you meet your co-founders while studying at Georgetown?
Nathaniel: I sat behind John freshman year in Accounting 101 and we bonded because we’re both from LA. And then Nick and John actually lived on the same floor freshman year and they’re kinda food buddies so we all joined forces senior year.
The nice thing was that I found John and Nick, or we found each other, and we had this shared passion for creating something.
Dan: So what sparked the creation of sweetgreen?
Nathaniel: John was always the friend who I would talk about business ideas with, more joking around than anything and he was also the buddy that went to music festivals with me and concerts with me so we shared a passion for music. One day when we were heading out to a festival in Baltimore he turned to me and said, “What do you think about opening a restaurant focusing around healthy food? I think it would do really well.” And that was the genesis of the idea.
Dan: So you had this idea now and so what’d you do from there?
Nathaniel: We put together a 3-page business plan. It was a joke. It was a cover page, pictures of furniture and some…
Dan: Gotta have the furniture.
Nathaniel: The furniture’s important, like some green chairs. And then the third page was like some mock-financials that we thought were amazing but were completely wrong.
And I remember going to actually our first store’s landlord and presenting this three page business plan. It was the first and last time we put a suit on, so it was pretty funny. We were pretty nervous about that. We handed her the business plan and she looked at it and she thought it was a school project. So um… [Dan laughs]
The interesting thing is you could tell that she kind of believed in it, but she made us really prove ourselves, come up with a real business plan, find some money, find an architect and she said if we did that, we could come back and we could talk seriously. So we went, you know for three weeks we really didn’t sleep, and just came up with the whole business, found an architect, showed that we could get some money initially, and then she gave us our first chance. And that’s how it all started.
Nathaniel: It was weird; it was a weird feeling because we were just so used to many people saying no.
Dan: How were you able to get all those things that she wanted you to get, like you had to get money. Where’d all that money come from?
Nathaniel: So I think you know with every business, everybody needs to go through the gauntlet of raising money.
And initially, we opened that first restaurant, we bootstrapped the whole thing so we got thousand dollar checks, we got five thousand dollar checks, initially from friends and family and then once we got about half of it, we went out to some real investors but still private people. And up until this day, we don’t have like any real institutional money.
But it was kind of fun for us. There were so many people that said no and it’s a really good feeling when somebody wants to jump off the cliff with you. I think it’s an important step into starting a business, it’s this idea of asking for money in a way that doesn’t sound like asking for money.
Dan: So how’d it go with the first location?
Nathaniel: When we opened our first one, we kind of had this shock of how to run a business and even more, a restaurant business because none of us had restaurant experience. We definitely underestimated how difficult it was to operate a restaurant.
But the funny thing was that that very first store was probably the size of this basement so, it was even smaller. It was 560 square feet. And it was so small that the bathroom was actually bigger than the kitchen. But it was almost a blessing in disguise because it really forced us to simplify the entire thing. We always say that if we had a bigger store like the one upstairs, we probably would have fucked it all up because there’s so much more room for error and complication.
And so the biggest lesson we learned from the first store is that less is more, not only with the number of ingredients that you have, but also to the number of menu items to how many lightbulbs you need and we really streamlined the whole process.
Dan: So how did things evolve from there?
Nathaniel: We fortunately did really well in that first store because it was so small and the rent was very cheap. We’d created a brand on campus and into the Georgetown area.
Dan: How did you do that?
Nathaniel: Initially just being there every day. Our marketing even until today has been kind of one customer at a time, not really blanket marketing but really just work of mouth marketing and touching one customer at a time.
So we got the word out. And I remember we made the decision after a year of being open to open a second restaurant. And we wanted the second restaurant to be more of a flagship. And we wanted seating and we wanted a bigger store and we wanted to catering and delivery and online ordering and we wanted to have an app and all those things that restaurants have these days.
We opened our second store in 2009. 2,000 square feet. It had 45 seats in it. We spent a lot of money. And we opened our doors in April, I think it was April Fools and we had no customers.
So we looked at each other and we realized well we just spent all this money and we have a beautiful store but we have nobody in it. So this is the end of the business.
And I remember looking at John and he was just as freaked out as I was and I was like, “Dude this is the end, this is the fucking end.” And he’s like, “No no no, we got to do some marketing.” And at that point, we didn’t really know what marketing was because it was just us and the store, it was our personalities in the stores, and the only thing that we knew how to do was to play music and to DJ a little bit.
We went to Guitar Center, we drove that day, and we bought this massive DJ speaker and brought it back. And our second store, it’s in Dupont Circle, which is kind of like the Union Square of DC. So there’s a large park outside, so you faced the speaker towards the park and we just played music every Saturday and Sunday for 3 months and passed out menus and samples and just really interacted with the customers that were on the street because there was heavy street traffic, just nobody knew who we were and the crazy thing was that it worked.
Nathaniel: It drove a lot of trial for our business so once people taste the food and kind of understand the concept, they fell in love with it. And there was this weird emotional connection between food and music and it wasn’t a fast food restaurant anymore. It became this destination to kind of hang out, have a yogurt, eat healthy.
Dan: And you were starting to build something here.
Nathaniel: So the next year, we did a smaller block party in our parking lot behind the restaurant. In the parking lot we share with the farmers market which is really cool. So we did a free block party, like 100 or 200 people, we brought a local band in and we just served free food and we had Lululemon there, we had some of our partners there. It was very small.
Dan: Was there a name for this festival?
Nathaniel: The first name was just Summer Block Party hosted by sweetgreen. And the next year we had about three restaurants and we did it again, it was a little bigger, was about 800 people came out and it was raining, of course. [Dan laughs] But it was interesting because you could tell there was a groundswell building of just people wanting to interact with the community and we had Hot Chip DJ which was cool. And it became kind of an experiment between food, music, and lifestyle.
And in 2011 we wanted to do a bigger music festival, maybe like 2,000 people. We wanted to partner Seth Hurwitz from 9:30 Club who’s the big music promoter down in DC. And we wanted to do it on this waterfront but he said, “If you want to build a stage and build porter potties and have security and do production it’s going to cost you a lot of money and my recommendation would be to use my venue.” So that was the moment when we were introduced to the Merriweather Post Pavillion.
And Merriweather Post Pavilion, it’s one of the most amazing venues I have been to. It’s been designed by Frank Gehry. It’s in Maryland. And it’s kind of in this forest, and it’s beautiful.
So we gave him a wish list of the bands we wanted. And about a month later, he called us and said The Strokes were interested in playing the festival.
Dan: [Laughs] Heard of them.
Nathaniel: And that was how our sweetlife Festival came about. But we really liked the idea that it all started from that one speaker, right? It all started from a solution to a problem, we had no business.
Dan: Right, you did not understand marketing.
Nathaniel: We had no idea what we were doing.
Dan: And now you’re throwing events with 20,000 people.
Nathaniel: Yea and that’s why I like it because it does feel like we paid for it. It feels like it’s part of our DNA. It feels like it’s, Oh sweetgreen they happened to throw a music festival. It’s not, sweetgreen they sponsor a music festival.
Dan: So what’s the idea behind sweetlife?
Nathaniel: So sweetlife is essentially living your best life. Especially our generation, we want to eat our cake and have it too. You know?
Nathaniel: And we wanted to kind of riff off that.
Dan: So Nathaniel, let’s talk about your day to day. How would you describe a typical day?
Nathaniel: I don’t know if there’s a typical day for me. We’ve been living out of suitcases recently and we kind of like that.
There’s three of use so we’re about to divide and conquer a little bit. We just opened a store in Boston and now we have this New York store so we’ve been traveling up there.
And I think our roles have transitioned from being everything from the CEO to the janitor. My role is branding and marketing for the company and the store design. So it means everything from graphic design to the menus of the website. We use a lot of partners and agencies to help us build these things but I kind of manage the creative team.
Dan: And what would you say you love about what you do?
Nathaniel: I love the momentum. I think it’s almost like a drug for me. It’s being able to go to work not knowing exactly what you’re doing but feeling kind of this natural energy of growth. And until that feeling goes away I think I know that I’m doing something right. And sweetgreen has been my own little business school. That even if shit hit the fan and business goes bankrupt tomorrow like I’d be so happy because I’ve learned so much.
Dan: And what would you say you dislike about what you do?
Nathaniel: The only thing I dislike about what I do is not having enough time to do it. I think the three of us love what we do and we’re very blessed to be able to say that, but I think definitely the three of us wish we had a little bit more time.
Dan: So how do you manage that, not having enough time?
Nathaniel: …Waking up earlier. I have no idea. [Laughter]
Dan: You’ve taken a lot of risks to get here, were there moment of like, Wait, what are we doing? And how were you able to overcome that?
Nathaniel: Well that happens every day. Even today, I mean there’s a lot of things where we go and we think, What the fuck are we doing? [Dan laughs]
That’s the beauty of starting your own business is the unknown. Today it can be an incredible day or tomorrow can be a really bad day, but I think that’s the exciting thing for an entrepreneur, is the unknown and being able to kind of course correct your way around it.
And I think we’ve gotten to a place where we’re confident in the three of our decision making to say yes or no. We’re big believers also in the fact that it’s the decisions that you really say no to that define your business. And so we’ve said no to so many things over the years and we’ve been so fortunate to have amazing advisors and mentors around us.
Dan: ‘No’ in terms of what?
Nathaniel: Everything. Franchising, new menu items, new markets, food trucks. You get very excited about trying to do so many things, like there are so many opportunities coming your way. And to do things well you can only do a few of them a year. And so at the end of the year, we lay out the top 3 things we have to do and then we just do those.
Dan: And so what fears do you have?
Nathaniel: People, 100%. It’s finding great people and that’s what keeps me up.
Nathaniel: Our biggest challenge we always say is ‘creating intimacy at scale’ because right now we’re becoming a chain and so the culture is the only thing that will prevent that.
Dan: So how do you overcome that challenge?
Nathaniel: All we can do right now is invest in the culture and invest in creating a great place to work, a place that stands for something, and at the end of the day we just want to make an impact. We want every customer that comes in to leave better than when we found them. And there is no science behind it. It’s finding people that want to go out of their way and to go 110% to help out a customer and that customer remembers those things for life. That’s what creates loyalty.
Dan: So Nathaniel, what advice would you be giving to someone who sees what you’re doing and wonders if it’s possible for them?
Nathaniel: My advice would be to find other people that are just as passionate as you are because the idea doesn’t really matter and that’s the crazy thing about it.
Everybody has a laundry list of ideas. Everybody thinks they have the next Facebook or Instagram, but I think it’s more about finding that shared passion and that special sauce that you have when connecting with somebody. And it doesn’t necessarily just a business partner. It can be an investor, it can be mentor, but you need I think for a successful business a shared confidence and two, there’s a lot of late nights where you stay up and you need somebody to you about your business and I think it’s important that you share that with somebody and the idea will come. But invest in the people first and invest in the people around you and then whatever idea you pick, you’ll be successful.