Nathaniel Ru is probably best known as one of the co-founders of Sweetgreen, a high-quality salad franchise with more than 40 restaurant locations. He was recently featured by Forbes as one of the “30 Under 30” leaders to watch in the food and wine industry. Ru worked closely with Jonathan Neman and Nicolas Jamme, all classmates from Georgetown University, to revolutionize the food industry with launching Sweetgreen. The trio of Sweetgreen founders all come from families of business owners, which made their leap into the restaurant business a more natural transition. They were spurred on by their frustration with a lack of healthy eating options around their Georgetown campus, which they thought they could solve by opening their own restaurants. Ru says that what sets his restaurant apart from other healthy chains is that they set out with a mission to feed people better. The trio has certainly lived up to their ambition as evidenced by the large crowds waiting to enjoy the organic, fresh food served daily at all Sweetgreen locations.
In addition to offering superior ingredients and developing a reputation for being one of the healthiest chain options, Sweetgreen also has a unique operating model. Ru has remained steadfast in his plans to decentralize Sweetgreen operations so that restaurants are not dependent on a single headquarters to dispense policy. He takes this principle to heart in requiring that corporate employees work at actual restaurant locations for certain weeks out of the year. This allows Sweetgreen headquarters to stay more in tune with the daily challenges that restaurant owners face and gives them more grassroots inspiration on how to grow the Sweetgreen chain. Even the CEOs of the company make sure to work from both coasts so that they are maintaining a truly national presence throughout the year.
Ru also says that one of the biggest challenges in launching his business to the scale it has achieved today was enlarging the team around him to fill important roles. He was actively involved in all of the roles that it took to get the company off the ground in its infant stages, which is why Ru said it was difficult to let go of some of those tasks. He realized, however, that building a good team around you is essential for the growth of any business. Ru credits the rapid pace of Sweetgreen’s growth with only employing the top talent he could find and incorporating all employees into the central mission of the company. This gives employees at all levels of the organization a sense of belonging and empowerment to fulfill their roles to the best of their abilities.
At a recent conference hosted by PSFK Consulting, Ru shared his vision for Sweetgreen and what he believes are the most essential elements in building a national brand. Ru shared that customer intimacy is always at the core of Sweetgreen’s initiatives. One of the most unique things about Ru’s restaurant chain is that it is based on building connections between people and the food they eat. Ru says this creates a more social experience for customers rooted in healthy eating. Ru has enabled Sweetgreen restaurant owners to maintain maximum flexibility in changing the ambience of their restaurant location to keep pace with customer desires. This is a sharp contrast from many national chains that try to impose a strict structure of décor, music, lighting and layout. Ru’s goal was that customers could have a different experience at each Ru location they choose to visit, which is made possible by each location being able to choose its own architect for a signature design. Along the same lines, Ru also instituted a seasonal menu at Sweetgreen, which keeps customers interested in coming back for their seasonal favorites and intrigued to try out new menu items. He says that he takes his lead from Mother Nature in embracing the best produce grown seasonally and locally near each Sweetgreen restaurant location.
In addition to founding a successful restaurant, Ru has also collaborated with top artists and producers to pull off the Sweetlife Festival, an annual celebration of good food and great music. Local food vendors line up to feed the massive crowds ready to enjoy incredible performances. All of the vendors are required to demonstrate a commitment to sustainable growth and healthy food. Sweetgreen has also offered new menu items in collaboration with some of the top artists and chefs featured at the festival, which has been a major hit amongst loyal customers.
If Ru had to give one piece of advice to budding entrepreneurs it would be to make sure that they are embarking on creating something that is bigger than themselves. This will allow a business to stand the test of time and ride out the initial rough patches that all companies inevitably go through. He also thinks that reading is essential to achieving your full potential and says that his only regret is not making more time to read more books in his early adulthood.
Ru is a frequent key speaker at major business conferences and is highly sought-after for his perspective on growing a brand that lasts. He has demonstrated a rare ability to prioritize human connections in an age dominated by digital devices. While Ru has never shied away from technology, he is always mindful that the most successful endeavors tend to arise out of deeply cemented relationships built on trust and a human connection. His restaurants are all equipped with the latest ordering technology, but the service customers receive is consistently personal. This is one of the best pieces of advice that Ru passes along to mentees and fellow business owners. Given that Ru was able to grow his brand from the ground up without major influence from wealthy investors, he has always possessed a cool confidence in his ability to weather whatever storms may arise and stay the course with his personal mission. This carries through to all aspects of his life and makes him perfectly situated to take his company to the next level of growth.
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