Hi everyone, thanks for joining us on another episode of The Leader Show with Lou Carter. Today, Lou interviews Jonathan Neman, CEO and founder of Sweetgreen, a fast-casual restaurant chain that aims to provide healthy and sustainable food options.
They discuss Sweetgreen’s mission to build healthier communities by connecting people to real food and how this mission has contributed to the company’s success as a Most Loved Workplace®. Neman shares insights into Sweetgreen’s culture, people-first approach, and commitment to providing competitive wages and benefits, as well as equity to all employees.
He also talks about the company’s decision to provide employees with stock grants, demonstrating their commitment to putting team members first. So, without any further ado, let’s jump right in.
When asked what makes Sweetgreen a Most Loved Workplace®, Jonathan highlights the company’s mission to build healthier communities by connecting people to real food.
Jonathan describes Sweetgreen’s people-first approach, which involves prioritizing the team member experience and running every decision through that filter. The company’s commitment to providing competitive wages, best-in-class benefits, and equity to all employees, including managers, is another important factor that contributes to its success as a Most Loved Workplace®.
In addition, Sweetgreen has a recognition program and offers paid time off, medical, dental, and vision benefits, as well as five months of paid parental leave for all team members. Neman also mentions that Sweetgreen gave a stock grant to every single employee working at the company when it went public in November 2021, which demonstrates its commitment to acting like an owner and putting its team members first.
Moving on, the speakers discuss Sweetgreen’s approach to conscious capitalism and its core value of “win, win, win,” which involves creating solutions where the customer, the community, and the company all benefit.
Neman explains that this approach is a more sustainable way of doing business and that Sweetgreen has found success by investing in its team members and employees, taking a long-term view, and viewing these investments as an opportunity rather than a cost center. Neman also shares Sweetgreen’s vision of becoming the iconic food brand of their generation by redefining fast food.
Next, Lou and Jonathan talk about Sweetgreen’s approach to fostering an owner’s mindset among its employees, which involves giving away equity and teaching life skills in addition to kitchen and leadership skills.
Neman explains that Sweetgreen sees investing in its team members as a pathway to the middle class and a way to create a development path of growing talent internally. He cites examples of team members who have started without college degrees or much previous experience and have been able to work their way up to running their own restaurant and making a good living.
Jonathan sees Sweetgreen as providing the next level of education that nobody gets in college, teaching skills like accounting, money management, and discipline in work and leadership. He is excited about the opportunities Sweetgreen is creating for its team members and sees it as a key factor in the company’s success.
Subsequently, Neman sheds light on the different levels of employment at Sweetgreen and what motivates people to stay and thrive. He explains that the focus is on the frontline team members, the head coaches, who are responsible for serving customers in the restaurants. He also mentions the support center team, which is responsible for supporting the restaurants, building new restaurants, and running the supply chain.
Jonathan strongly believes that people are motivated by Sweetgreen’s mission to change the food system and create healthier communities, as well as the opportunity to work for a fast-growing brand that is disrupting its space. He mentions that investment in technology and innovation is also a key factor that attracts people to Sweetgreen.
Jonathan also discusses how the company’s triple bottom line philosophy of win-win-win, which creates solutions where the customer, community, and company all win, has led to its success as a most loved workplace.
According to him, Sweetgreen invests in its employees and team members, providing them with a career path and teaching life skills, which is a much more sustainable approach to doing business. The restaurant industry is uniquely positioned to provide opportunities for growth and development for young professionals without a college degree or previous experience.
The company’s focus on innovation and disruption in the industry, as well as its mission to change the food system and establish a new model of conscious capitalism, has created excitement among employees and customers alike.
Neman sees Sweetgreen as just at the beginning of its journey and has dedicated his life to redefining fast food and creating access to healthy food across the world while establishing a new paradigm of companies that show capitalism can work with a win-win-win approach.
Jonathan Neman draws a parallel between Sweetgreen and Starbucks in terms of their growth trajectory. He notes that while Sweetgreen currently has just over 150 restaurants, joining the company at this stage presents a similar opportunity as joining Starbucks when they had the same number of locations.
Neman strongly believes that the journey to growth will be similar and that the potential for learning and development will be just as significant. Additionally, both Sweetgreen and Starbucks have a similar ownership mentality, with a focus on investing in employees and fostering an owner’s mindset.
However, Sweetgreen is looking to redefine the fast-food industry by offering healthy and nutritious food options, while Starbucks revolutionized the coffee industry by popularizing espresso-based drinks and creating a “third place” for people to gather.
Moving on, Jonathan emphasizes the importance of intentionality around culture and creating a common language within the organization. He believes that culture doesn’t just happen naturally, and leaders need to create an environment for people to do their best work. Sweetgreen’s leadership principles and core values create a common language that defines the organization and attracts and rewards people based on a common rubric.
Jonathan also mentions that the intentionality around culture can create constructs where people will make the right decision without strict rules. Sweetgreen uses freedom within a framework approach that empowers team members to do their best work. This intentional approach to culture and decision-making is critical for the company’s global expansion plans, where a common language and core values can resonate everywhere and create a sense of safety and belonging for all team members.
Lastly, Jonathan highlights Sweetgreen’s approach to balancing art and science to achieve scalability. He explains how the company values both the emotional and structural aspects of the brand, such as the taste of the food and the team member payment structures.
Neman sees the “art” side as the company’s more philosophical, emotive qualities, such as the brand, the culture, and the taste of the food. On the other hand, he sees the “science” side as the more system and structure-related aspects, such as team member compensation, technology stack, and data leverage.
According to him, Sweetgreen’s success lies in finding the right balance between these two sides, which he believes applies to many companies, not just consumer brands.
Lou and John go into much greater detail throughout this conversation. Thank you for listening!
Louis Carter : It's great to be here today with Jonathan Neman from, he's the CEO and founder of Sweetgreen, wonderful place. We're gonna talk about the not only sustainability and wonderful parts of how he's created this ecosystem of capitalism gone right, but really learn about how he's developed it and how it's helped really define the way we have a relationship with food. Jonathan, welcome today.
Jonathan Neman : Thank you. Thank you so much for having me, an honor to be here.
LC : It's great to have you too. And, congratulations on becoming a Most Loved Workplace.
JN : Thank you. It's one of our proudest achievements and it's something that we focus on so much and it's so important to us, and so it was really quite an honor to be included.
LC : Tell me more about, so just, you know, firstly, what makes you a most love workplace? Tell me more about, you know, what, what your culture is all about and what that makes and fosters to become a most love workplace?
JN : Yeah. I think for us it really starts with our mission. When we started the company 15 years ago, we set out with our mission, which is to build healthier communities by connecting people to real food. And our vision is to redefine fast food. When you think about the food system today, we believe that it's broken. And you look at the number of people in this world, and Americans every day that eat fast food, it will kind of blow your mind. 85 million Americans eat fast food every single day.
And we, again, believe that system is broken and we can be part of that solution. Not the only one, but just a part of leading change around people's relationship to food. And so I think, you know, being a most loved workplace, when we talk to our team members, what really resonates with them first and foremost is working for a company that has a strong purpose and lives by these strong values.
I think that that is like the big thing that differentiates us, and it really defines our culture. Beyond that, I think we have a very people-first approach to taking care of our, taking care of our team members. And it starts with one of our leadership principles, which is to obsess over the team member experience. And we run every decision through that filter. So there may be things that make sense for the customer, but not the team member. And we really make sure to balance all of our interests and take care of that team member.
And to your point on capitalism, we don't do that. I mean, we do that out of the goodness of our hearts, but also because it's good business. And we know that our experience to our customer can only be as good as the experience of our team members and that frontline employee.
So, we focus really hard on defining, you know, what that role is, how to make it better, including the wages and benefits and other things that we offer. So it's, you know, to sum it up, it's the mission, it's the approach to putting our team member first and then of course all the things that we give, you know, our team members from competitive wages, best in class benefits, including medical, dental, vision. We do 401 k matching, paid time off, five months of paid parental leave for all of our team members. Awesome recognition program. And something that I'm super proud of is every single manager, manager of our restaurants, which is what we call a head coach, has equity, has stock in the company.
The last thing I'll say on that is right before you know, Sweetgreen went public last November, and you know, another leadership principle we have is act like an owner. And we wanted to make that super real. And so we actually gave stock, we gave a stock grant to every single employee working at the company at that time. So now that idea of act like an owner was, you are an owner and it's something that we're super proud of. So just another example of the ways, you know, we put our team members first and that helps us win as a company.
LC : And it goes straight to your values and philosophy of win-win-win and how you set up this wonderful ecosystem of customers, company, community. And it's not only a food ecosystem of healthy food and our relationship with food, it's also a healthy ecosystem for capitalism.
JN : Yeah, absolutely. And, and, and you touched, you touched on another one of our core values, which is win, win, win, and which is creating solutions where the customer, the community, and the company win. And we think that this, you know, this approach to conscious capitalism or this triple bottom line is a much more sustainable approach to doing business. And again, we don't do it just because it's great for our communities or great for our customers. We believe it's great business sense if done right. It takes, I think, some creativity and finding those creative solutions.
But we found a lot of success in places where we've been able to invest in our team members and in our employees in ways that many other companies would've viewed as a cost center. We viewed as an investment and have seen the ROI on these things. Especially I think what allows us to do this is we take a very long-term view. You know, we say, you know, sweet Green is a multi-generational company and we're really just getting started. You know, we have 150, just over 150 restaurants around the country, and the opportunity's massive. And so we're laying the foundation here to redefine fast food and be the iconic food brand of our generation.
LC : You know, let's talk about you, you have giving away equity and having a founder's mindset is, is incredible founders, and specifically owner's mindset is incredible, right? Being an owner. Cause when you're an owner, you truly feel like it's part of your family, like you said, and it's generational and you give that away. It's part of not only sustainability, but legacy. So what is that feeling like that you have and that you, can you foster when you walk into a restaurant or you are with other executives? Like is it palpable? Can you actually, you could kind of measure it, see it like what is it like to be that employee?
JN : You know, I think when I think about the opportunity at Sweetgreen, I think that to your point, there's the opportunity we have around building healthier communities and the connection to real food that we're creating and helping people on that food journey, that nutrition and health journey, which is a huge, you know, a huge part of what we do. But the second part of what we do that gets us really excited is the opportunity we're creating for our team members. I'll tell you our COO, Chris Carr, you know, what he'll tell you is his, you know, typically a COO is a Chief Operating Officer. He calls himself the Chief Opportunity Officer. And the reason is the success of Sweetgreen comes directly from the success of our ability to develop talent to grow. And I think where we we're uniquely positioned, I think the service industry and the restaurant industry is uniquely positioned.
It's one of the only places you can start without college degree or a lot of previous experience. And you can start at working at Sweetgreen and within three years be running your own restaurant making approximately six figures. So it's a true pathway to the middle class. And then you layer on things like equity and the understanding of how equity works and the power of compounding capital. That not only are we teaching them kitchen skills and leadership skills, but we're teaching life skills. And I think that's something that we get really excited about is how do we invest in our people, not just as leaders running restaurants, but as full human beings that can, that can live greater lives.
LC : Hmm. Sounds like that next level of education that nobody gets in college and you know, the accounting, how we manage our money, how we lead others ourselves stay, you know, so stay disciplined in our work, we don't teach that, right, [laughs] necessarily in college. You're that next level of education really, it seems!
JN : Yeah. And that's for us again, that is part of our flywheel. The more we invest in that team member, the better we can create this development path of growing talent internally. I mean, we have data to prove that it makes our business better, our customers are happier, but what a cool opportunity to be able, to lift up so many people. You know, we're opening so many new restaurants across the country and we're gonna accelerate this. So there's so many more opportunities for team members to grow into assistant coaches, assistant coaches to become head coaches, and head coaches to kind of grow, grow and run, you know, markets and regions. And we've seen, you know, in the past 15 years, so many of these success stories already. And it's one of the things that I get most excited about. Our opportunity is to continue to create these opportunities for our team members.
LC : Let's say I've just, I'm a young professional. I want to join a company. I'm interested in the hospitality industry and retail industry and restaurant industry, right? And I say to myself, well, what a wonderful, what do I look for opportunities? And I would think as a young professional, you would look to you [laughs] as a young professional because you have this path that's very clear and you know how to get, you would be taught really, and you develop yourself to get there. Is that something you're seeing in Sweetgreen? Is that something that, am I properly mirroring it that way?
JN : Yeah, that's, that's, that's exactly right. You know, for us, especially in today's job environment, there's a lot of jobs that you can do, especially like an independent contractor to, to get, you know, to make money. But I think what makes us different is that opportunity and that path. And we find the, you know, the employees, the team members that do great here are ones that are connected to our mission, so come for a greater purpose and want to grow. And when you combine those two, something really powerful happens. And, and so that's, that's really where we're focused as a company.
LC : Outstanding. And you're, so let's talk about other sort of other sort of people, other people who want to come in at different levels, right? What are their motivations when they, they come in and, and when they do get their kind of, you know, how do they not just stay but really thrive? What other levels are there?
JN : Well, you know, at Sweetgreen, we have about over 5,000 team members across our restaurants. And really the, you know, the focus for us is the frontline team member, our head coach, and the people that are serving our guests. Of course we do have a support center that helps support our restaurants, helps build new restaurants, builds the technology to improve the experience, you know, runs our supply chain and all of that. So we do also have, you know, a huge focus on the support center team as well, which is just over 300 team members at our support centers distributed around the country. You know, I think one, some of the things that they get excited about again, is the mission and the opportunity to change the food system. It's the opportunity to work for a really fast-growing brand. You know, we're growing at a really rapid clip, and when you're growing this fast, you're learning a lot.
I think the other piece is the innovation cadence. You know, I think the world is changing really fast and Sweetgreen has really positioned ourselves as a category leader in this space. And so the investments we've made around technology, around food, around kind of defining a brand in a different type of way, I think people get really excited about working for a company that is disrupting its space. So I think that's the other piece, especially at the support center. I mean across, really across the company where people get excited working for a company that's innovating and disrupting and not doing things the way they used to be done.
LC : You're the SpaceX of restaurant chains you say. And which is really the, you know, people wanna work for the best, disruptive industries, the coolest. And, you know, you can get equity there too. It's not just a Starbucks, you know, not just Starbucks, we're going to you, which has equity, same structure, same ownership mentality, yet you're changing the industry and the world. So you have this, you've kind of leveled up, you know, the whole industry.
JN : It’s still early, you know, we're at 150, you know, if I told you had the opportunity to join a company like Starbucks at 150 restaurants and what you would learn on your way to the 20, you know, the thing over 20,000 or 30,000 they have today- what that journey would be like. And so, you know, I remind our team all the time that we're really at the, you know, at the top of the first inning here. Like we're just getting started. It's been 15 years, but the opportunity ahead. We've just, you know, we've just been laying the groundwork, the infrastructure, building, the brand the technology, the team, and the culture and the supply chain. But we're at this amazing inflection point now where we get to take this Sweetgreen experience and this philosophy and core values and principles and expand it across the country and, and, and eventually across the globe. And that, that's gonna create a lot of opportunities for our team members. A lot of challenges to problems to solve. And I think that's for me that's super exciting. It's, you know, I can do this for the rest of my life and continuing to solve this problem. And I think a lot of other people are excited by that as well.
LC : Wow. That said a lot there. I mean, a lot because a lot of entrepreneurs say, yeah, that's it. You know, I'm gonna finish this. I'm gonna go on to the next thing. You're saying something very different. You're saying you've dedicated your life to it. You're going to have a career trajectory with your company and grow it, you know, a lot like Schultz did, right? And Howard Bahar. That's right. They weren't in it to just create and leave. They were in it because they loved community, right? And you similarly are in it for your ecosystem, for conscious capitalism, for enabling a new way of being in restaurants that enables this kind of growth for employees. I mean, it's part of you. You're who you are as Jonathan Neman.
JN : Absolutely. I mean, this is, for me, I believe is part of my personal purpose, which is really redefining fast food and creating access to healthy food across the world. But also to our earlier points around kind of establishing or helping be part of establishing a different model of capitalism. You know, I do believe in today, capitalism is under attack, and I understand why it is. And I think there needs to be a new paradigm of companies that shows that, you know, capitalism can work with this win win-win approach. And so for us, for me, in that, you know, it's twofold. And of course, having fun along the way, one of the things that, you know, I've learned a lot from is, I started this company with two of my best friends. We still share an office today. My, my, you know, Nicholas Jermaine and Nathaniel Rue.
We still share an office today. We lead the company together. And I've learned so much about partnership and team building through that relationship because we have this, this team between the three of us of no ego, high trust, aligned purpose, and just true commitment. And, you know, some of those are some of the elements that we make sure to infuse across the rest of the company and use as a model on defining our culture. And so having fun along the way, doing it with people you like is also an important part of this. Cause it's, you know, we spend most of our waking hours working.
LC : I couldn't agree more. That's right. I mean, and you know, knowing that, you know, that kind of deep triumvirate trust that you have, that's really what you have is what you want for everyone. It doesn't come overnight, right? You can't just recruit and then say that's gonna happen. It takes a lot of work, daily repetition, trust building, opportunities, people, you know, feeling success. And I've always said that, that the sooner you can help someone feel success is when they'll become a true believer in your work.
JN : Yeah. Well said. Well said. I think that those quick wins and, and early success is important. You know, for us, the word that comes to mind is intentionality around culture. You know, how do we- I think culture doesn't just happen naturally. You know, it's this ambiguous thing that kind of encompasses everything. But so much of our job as leaders is creating that sandbox and that environment for people to do their best work. And I think the best, you know, the, the greatest companies, if you think about the companies that have been most successful, it's not just that they've found a product that works, they found a way of working that defines them, a way of communicating, a way of making decisions. And I think as leaders, our job is equally as important of like running the business and setting the vision long-term strategy.
But it's this, it's the intentionality around how we treat each other, how we make decisions, and how we work that really defines us. And so we spend a lot of, I mean, from the very beginning, you know, we spend a lot of time on these kind of philosophical elements of like, what do we want to be, how do we want to act? And I think that's gone a long way and, you know, creates a common language. So our leadership principles and our core values create this common language, and you can go speak to any of our team members and they will talk about these things that we believe in. It's why, and it's how we attract people, but as also how we reward people based off of this, this common rubric.
LC : And we need that today. There's so many questions around our language and what we say, and a lot of people don't feel safe talking anymore. So what you've done is create a new culture where people feel safe talking within your construct. You mentioned a global expansion. Wow. What a way to expand globally is by creating a common lexicon, really a common language for everyone across the globe. Maybe there's some differences in translation. However, when the language is core and true and sort of ethically and value sound, it resonates everywhere it becomes music.
JN : That's right. You know, we, we always, when we started, we remember, you know, we experienced firsthand, we used to run the restaurants ourselves, of course, when we had the first restaurant, the second, the third, up until, you know, the first 10, we were in the restaurants fully running them, doing, you know, doing everything, making the food. And it got to this point where we're like, well, we can't be everywhere. We're not gonna be able to make every decision. And so how do we create- how do we use this intentional approach to creating constructs where we will all make that, you know, the right decision without these rules? So this freedom within a framework call it, and these things have these creative tensions, again intentionally, that empower our team members to do their best work.
LC : And you're, you're talking about scalability now, really, you know, if we look at the b a terms, scalability, you've taken scalability and brought it to an art form. [Laughs] You're talking about really connecting scalability to values, to behavior, you know, to these kind of, they're much larger and metaphysical in the concert.
JN : One of those principles, as an example, is balancing art and science. So at Sweetgreen, we believe that, you know, as a brand, we have to be equally as good on the art side. And think of the art as the philosophical, the culture, the taste of the food, the brand, all of the more emotive things, call it more of the right brain or emotive qualities of the company, whether that be at the, you know, the consumer experience side or the company culture side. And we have to be good on the science, right?
So the science being, you know, on the team member, how do we pay them? You know, what are the structures, what's the technology stack look like? How are we usually leveraging data? And we believe that really this applies, I think most to consumer brands, but probably a lot, you know, a lot of companies. Having that balance of the art and the science is something that we think defines us as a company. And so there's another example of, you know, combining the philosophical with the, you know, more system, system and structure and infrastructure to really lead us to that true scalability.
LC : Outstanding. Well, this has been a fascinating conversation and learning with you about how really you stand out in this industry and how you'll continue to grow. And you're on this growth trajectory. It's really awesome to be with you.
JN : Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. Again, such an honor to be here. This has been such an amazing honor for us and something that we've been really proud to celebrate with our teams. And so we really appreciate the acknowledgement and, you know, we hope to continue to live, live those values. And over time, we'd like to be number one on the Most Loved Workplace.
LC : Well, it's certainly an honor and pleasure talking with you today.
JN : Ah, thank you.