Building healthier communities isn't the type of lofty goal you’d expect out of a “fast food” company. But that's exactly what sweetgreen, the healthy fast casual company started in 2007, is all about. They are committed to changing the way people think about food and having a positive impact on the food system.
The company has five core values, something that VP of Marketing & Brand, Farryn Weiner calls her “North Star.” From keeping it real to making an impact, it’s how they cultivate culture and a work environment that requires all team members to take leadership roles.
Collaborating on a salad with Kendrick Lamar-- they’ve done it. Organizing run meetups via Twitter. Yep. They’re on it. They have education programs and music festivals, like the upcoming sweetlife festival taking place this May. With headliners like Blondie, Grimes, and Flume, the company is building on the universality of food and music. Or as Farryn says, “music and food have an uncanny way of sparking connections, and that’s really what we’re all about.” There is no idea too big or too small to be brought to their table.
We checked in with Farryn to find out how and why she got involved with sweetgreen (it involves taking a literal “leap”), what the “sweetlife” means to her, and the three questions she always asks herself before joining a company.
Can you tell us a little about yourself, how you came to work for sweetgreen, and how its office culture is different than what you’ve experienced in the past?
I met the sweetgreen founders skydiving in Utah and immediately got to know them and the brand. I was drawn to the idea of passion x purpose, obsessed with the mission, and knew I could tell a great story and help make the world a better place by coming to work here. For me, there are three key questions I ask myself before joining any organization:
Are there leaders I can learn from?
Is there a compelling story to tell?
- Is the company solving a problem and therefore, positioned for growth?
sweetgreen provided a resounding yes to all these questions. We’re really in a position to change the way people think about food. We can make healthy eating accessible and help people understand the food system — that’s a huge opportunity, and a huge responsibility.
In terms of culture, everyone at sweetgreen is a leader, and great things are expected of every single person. We’re a growing company but for us, growth is about our higher-order principles and ensuring we can build the kind of company we can be proud of. We think more about our people pipeline than our real estate pipeline. If we don’t have access to the right supply network or people, we will alter our pace of growth to solve those problems so we can execute the right way and be true to our mission. In other words, we think about how to multiply talent and cultivate leaders, and that drives our growth. Growth isn’t about a number, it’s more qualitative and development-focused.
sweetgreen is founded on five core values. Can you talk a bit about making decisions that last longer than you, and why this is a important business model?
Jon, Nic, and Nate developed our five core values in the early days of sweetgreen, and we live by them to this day. Every decision we make, from hiring and real estate to community and food prep, goes through the filter of the core values, and they’re a gut-check to make sure we’re doing the right thing and building an impact brand. We have a perspective and we stand for something — that’s what today’s consumers are looking for, and it’s how we’ve always operated.
Thinking sustainably is one of these core values, and it’s about making decisions that will benefit the company and the community for the long haul. We’re inspiring healthier communities, and thinking sustainably is a big part of that. We take a holistic view of health that includes everything from healthy eating to fitness to education and building community. We connect the dots, we focus on the root cause, and we solve real problems that have a real impact.
What lessons have you learned from working with sweetgreen?
Always have a north star, and rally your teams around it. Having our core values is so intrinsic to our success as a brand. They drive our focus and execution, which builds momentum and fosters growth and development. It’s so simple, yet so powerful.
How important is collaboration when it comes to creativity within the office?
Collaboration is at the core of what we do — we operate very cross-functionally and non-linearly. This year, we restructured the organization around our key imperatives; every single person at every level has a leadership obligation to drive the business. We’re always testing and learning to understand how to make the sweetgreen experience more seamless and inspiring for team members and customers alike. We have a strong respect of the brand and its mission, and there’s partnership across functions and levels — we’re all here to build a great company and change the way people think about food.
How does sweetgreen choose its collaborations? What goes on in those meetings?
We look for partners that combine style and substance — we’ve collaborated on salads with Dan Barber and Kendrick Lamar because they’ve given us an opportunity to talk about nutrition in a fun way that transcends impact and is authentic to who we are and what we stand for.
People hear fast food and healthy is not top of mind— or on their mind at all. How are you working to change that thinking?
The rise of fast food compromised nutrition for convenience, so “healthy” and “fast” were mutually exclusive for a while. But we’re part of a movement to make healthy eating more mainstream — it’s what today’s consumers crave and demand from food businesses. People are busy, but they want to eat well and be healthy; we’re making that possible.
Along those lines, “sustainable” and “fast” are not always synonymous. How does sweetgreen mitigate being a “fast” food company playing the slow, long, sustainable game?
It’s all about the supply network you build, and we’ve worked hard to build a strong one. We do things differently, and we don’t take the easy route — it’s not easy to source sustainably, but we’re committed to doing so and supporting local food economies.
What does “living the sweet life” mean to you?
For me, there is no “work life balance” — I believe in finding a life you love, inclusive of friends, career, travel, etc. I’ve always wanted to work in an entrepreneurial environment, see the world and apply the lessons I learned around the globe to my career to help me tell better stories for the brand I work on. My sweetlife is a world where all these things coexist, and I bring a lot of energy to all of it.
You’ve written about doing “better than your best,” how do you bring this attitude into sweetgreen’s culture and messaging?
At sweetgreen, how we strive for excellence in everything we do, from sourcing to healthy recipes to leadership. We bring energy to our work to build momentum and work toward our mission. To that end, I’m constantly challenging people around me to do more and better than they think they can. And as the team is moving a million miles an hour on a handful of very different projects, I push the team to be very proud of everything we do, from an email to the sweetlife festival announcement. We have a lean team, so there’s a lot of accountability - we all own our domains, if we don’t take the best care of our channels, who will? We like to say that we “only do dope” — if it’s less than dope, it won’t go out the door.
How much fun is it to work at sweetgreen? (Because it seems really fun.)
To be able to wake up and do what you love is one thing, to be able to wake up and do what you love and make a difference is that much sweeter. We’re part of a movement to change the way people think about food and make the world a better place, and that’s a really exciting and fun position to be in.
Arianna Schioldager is Create & Cultivate's editorial director. You can find her on IG @ariannawrotethis and more about her at www.ariannawrotethis.com