Good news Philadelphia: Sweetgreen is launching their Zahav bowl today! Nicolas Jammett, co-Founder and co-CEO of Sweetgreen, teamed up with Philly’s very own celebrity chef, Michael Solomonov, to create the banging new salad bowl for the spring. Inspired by Israeli spices and fresh seasonal veg, the Zahav Bowl brings to Philly a little taste of the Mediterranean. The turmeric roasted cauliflower and tender, juicy chicken are tossed with crunchy almonds, shredded carrots, warm chickpeas, kale, and mint leaves. The whole thing is tossed in an addicting lemon-dill-tahini dressing and finished off with their special smoky hot sauce. All for only$9.95 available in every Philadelphia location starting today! You better hop in line quick and I promise it’ll become one of your favorite go-to combos.
The launch party took place in La Colombe‘s Fishtown location, displaying Solmonov’s other specialties including Dizengoff‘s famous hummus and dips served with za’atar pita chips and Federal Donut‘s fried chicken sandwiches and donuts. Along with the scrumptious food, Sweetgreen gave out a special La Colombe x Sweetgreen roast, bottles of the special smoky hot sauce used in the Zahav bowl, and a bouquet of flowers you could put together from the flower bar. Sweetgreen stays true to its mission to keep local in collaborating with all the hippest people in Philadelphia, creating a truly unbelievable launch party. With a dank local DJ, incredible local hip hop dancers, and the Philly community in one room connecting, sharing, and telling stories.
Juliana and I had the honor to interview Nick –the man behind it all, the pioneer of locally sourced healthy fast casual restaurants, and all around great guy– about his story, his inspirations, and his philosophy in the food industry.
How did you start Sweetgreen? When you first started, did you create all the menu ideas and try them out
in a test kitchen yourselves in college or—
If by test kitchen you mean our dorm room, then yeah. We did all these menu tastings in our dorm room, and the first couple years it was just us coming up with the menu. Now it’s driven by the farmers, rather than chef-driven. When we got to a certain size, we needed more culinary expertise, which really made our food taste so much better. I look back to way I was doing it then…
We’d invite our friends over and we gave out survey sheets to fill out anonymously. Funny story, the guacamole greens salad that’s on the menu is still from the original menu we tested in our dorm room. That’s the only thing that has made it. Everything else has changed.
You started in DC but have now expanded to many other cities. How do you keep to your mission for local and sustainable food as you continue to grow?
Our food ethos is that we believe food should be different everywhere and that we should respect that it comes out of the land and from farmers, so that’s really what drives a lot of our menu and a lot of our food.
Every one of our cities is set up as a separate supply chain. In Philly, we have our own group of farmers, producers and growers that allows us to create a menu based on that ethos of celebrating the food landscape, the whole agriculture and food community. Tonight is really a celebration of that ethos, of the community and some incredible folks in the food world that we respect and are inspired by.
Urban farming has been growing so much these days. Do you partner with any urban farms now?
It’s really exciting to see urban agriculture take a big leap forward, and in many of the cities we’re in, there are some really awesome farmers doing some incredible stuff, especially in Chicago, New York, Philly. Definitely people we’re really proud of, proud to know and partner with, and definitely folks we consider within our community.
Ben Famous: Actually, we opened in Chicago as our first midwestern market in August of last year. There we connected to urban agriculture in a really fun and interesting way.
How did you get started with the sustainable approach to sweetgreen? Where did your concept come from?
So we started sweetgreen, myself and two friends, when we were seniors at Georgetown in 2007, ten years ago. We just didn’t understand why there wasn’t an option of delicious, clean food—food that made you feel good, food that you could trust, food that was healthy but also cool. You remember, back then in 2007, it was hard to find healthy food, and when you did find it, it either wasn’t accessible or delicious or just cool. We wanted to create a brand like the one all these fast food brands were growing but do that for healthy food. We wanted to really celebrate the kind of food we thought people should be connecting with.
So we started sweetgreen, developed the business plan our senior year, opened it a month after graduation in a 560 square foot hut that still stands there today. That’s where sweetgreen was born. We’ve grown ever since, and our community has really taken to this idea of connecting with their food, having fun around it, celebrating it and making it cool.
What did you do in college that helped you get to that point? Anything you’d suggest interested college students do before looking to launch their own concept?
I would say that we were driven by trying to solve this problem we had in our own life. Every single day, we’d have this conversation of: “Where should we eat? Where should we eat? I’m sick of this, this is gross, I don’t feel good when I that.” I think the best ideas always come as solutions to a problem, so I would ask youself, “what are the biggest problems I see and how can I solve them?”
Did you intend to revolutionize healthy eating to make it more mainstream or was sweetgreen just a solution for people already seeking that?
Good question. You know, in the beginning, it was simple. We wanted to solve a problem for ourselves and for our community that was Georgetown, and as we opened it and really got integrated into the food world, we saw that this was a problem everywhere. We didn’t understand why there wasn’t a greater brand that could create access to and excitement around healthy food. So the goal is to connect people with real food everywhere, whether that’s feeding them at one of our restaurants, or by inspiring them with a story, or by just having fun at an event like this. We just want to inspire healthy communities and connect people to real food.
So, you partnered with Michael Solomonov for the Zahav bowl. What inspired that?
First and foremost, we’ve always been super inspired and in awe of Mike and his brand and his food and what he stands for. You’ll see tonight when you meet him that he’s really one of the coolest guys around, really authentic and passionate. Plus his food is really damn good. He believes in a lot of the same things we believe in around food, we share a food ethos. We do some of these collaborations every year in many cities, and it’s always about finding partners who believe the same thing we do about food and want to just have fun with us around food. So tonight it’s really just about having fun and celebrating good food.
What other collaborations have you done before?
Over the years, we’ve had David Chang in New York, Sqirl in LA, John and Vinny’s in LA, Ken Oranger in Boston, Dan Barber in New York. We did one with Bon Appetit. Kendrick Lamar two years ago—beets don’t kale my vibe. Lots coming in the future.
Will you expand your collaborations to artists?
We’ve actually collaborated with a lot of artists in many of our spaces, especially in the last couple of years. We’ve commissioned custom art from that region for the space that reflects the seasons. We’ve collaborated with about ten or twelve artists now, all unique, one-of-a-kind pieces that we display in the restaurant to celebrate the seasons.
Any thoughts on expanding to even more cities?
We opened our first restaurant in LA about a year and a half ago, and we have five there now, three in San Francisco and one in Chicago now. So we’re in eight different states, seven regions, and always looking to continue to expand but really by taking it one community at a time, really celebrating each city. We’ve been here in Philly, gosh, six or seven years now, just growing a little bit every year, trying to make new connections here and have fun. So it’s both—we want to go new cities but we also want to grow in the cities we’re already in.
Would you ever consider going international? I’m from Tokyo, so I was wondering, would you ever bring sweetgreen there?
There you go, now you’re speaking my language. Tokyo is one of my favorite places in the world. Definitely one of my dreams to open in a city like that. I just think building the menu in Japan would be so much fun. Our menu is regional so it would be a reflection of the culture there, what grows there—that would be a lot of fun.
What was the biggest challenge you had in scaling?
Our business, even though we source and sell food, is inherently a people business. It’s our biggest opportunity and challenge, always finding great people. We’re growing at a pretty quick rate, so we need to find a lot of those great people. We’re really proud of the team we have now so we want to continue to find people who believe in what we’re doing to keep building that culture.
How do you develop the menus? Do the ideas come from chefs, from you and the founder still?
Our menu meeting are one of the funnest things at sweetgreen, but really, it all starts with the supply chain. Our supply chain team spends a lot of time really connecting with and visiting different farmers in the region. From that set of ingredients, our culinary team creates menus. Our menu is part seasonal, changing five times a year. So the supply chain team gives the chef what the farmers are growing, what we want to use, what we want to buy, and the chef creates a delicious salad or grain bowl with those ingredients. It really starts with the land and the farmer.
That’s really unique in the fast-casual restaurant business. The way my mom taught me to eat was with the seasons, intuitive eating respecting the land. It’s so hard to access.
Exactly—your mom is speaking the truth. When we say “connecting people to real food,” it kind of means letting them in on that story, like peaches are in season, get excited and now they’re gone, you missed them and it sucks.
Any particular ingredients or menu items you’ve really loved?
Because our menu rotates so much its a really cool opportunity to try different things and test out some of the things our growers are using. A couple years ago we started selling broccoli leaf, the leaf that grows on the outside of the broccoli plant. It’s a really cool story. Again our concept is to rethink food and bring different ideas to our customers and help them see that healthy eating is cool and can be much broader than we think—it’s not just eating kale every day. We were visiting our broccoli farm and were standing in the field. If you’ve ever seen a broccoli head that’s this big, the plant is that big [talking with hands]. So we’re in the field with him, and we’re like “what is this?” He said, “its broccoli.” You dig around and see it in the bottom. The farmer reaches over and grabs a piece of the leaf and shoves it in his mouth, and he’s like “this is delicious.” We asked why he wouldn’t see it and he told us that no one wants it. Everyone wants to eat kale; there’s no market for broccoli leaf. So they just till it back into the ground, they don’t sell it. Again, he would and should sell it if there was a person to buy it. What the farmer sells is really driven by what consumers will buy. So we see our role as one to tell these stories to our customers, to say to them, “Hey look at this cool thing you should be buying. It’s good for the farmer and good for you.” So we started selling broccoli leaf and telling this story. Farmers are the rock stars.
Do you do any food waste initiatives? So much is wasted in restaurants.
We do full scratch cooking at sweetgreen, meaning we cook everything from scratch every day at every restaurant. I don’t think a lot of people know that. Every dressing is made at every store, every piece of vegetable is cleaned and cut, every meat is roasted. It’s pretty rare for restaurants in our category. But because of that, because of the way we’ve built our ingredient supply, we are really able to minimize waste.
Two years ago, one of the collaborations we did was with Dan Barber of Blue Hill, incredible chef and one of my favorite places. One of his passion project is this WASTED campaign, trying to bring attention and awareness to food waste. He created a salad with us and helped us look through our supply chain and our kitchen to understand that we could buy broccoli leaf, roast kale stems, make use of things either we were throwing away or our farmer was throwing away, or things that just weren’t making it to the consumer. We made a delicious salad with all of this and could tell our guests a new story. It was a great salad but it was also great to talk about. A lot of our guests were like, “holy shit, I just didn’t realize.” It made them think about things differently, and to us, that’s connecting people with real food.
Yes, a lot the things that came out of that collaboration and that salad, we just made permanent on our menu. The way we think about how we buy the broccoli, how we prepare it using the whole stalk. You’ll notice our broccoli isn’t just the florets, it’s the whole stalk, which is just as flavorful. But people are used to eating just the florets so oftentimes the stalk gets thrown out.
Why did you choose La Colombe to launch tonight?
La Colombe is one of those brands that we really look up to. They started in Philly and have really cool roots here. We respect them from a product point of view, from their brand, from their design. I think they always design really cool spaces. We’re good friends with them, we wanted to do something fun so we chose this space. We’ve also known Michael for a few years, and finally, when we looked to do something fun here in Philly around food, we decided to create a collaboration. It all came together .
On a similar note, do you have any specific inspirations for your brand and the development of your image, even in other industries?
We’re inspired by a lot of things inside and outside the industry. Our name came together in a late night brainstorm back in college, but today we’re inspired by brands like Everlane, APC, Outdoor Voices, Patagonia, from a design and impact point of view.
It’s always so interesting to draw connections between brands in different industries and how they take cues from each other.
Yeah, we look outside the industry quite a bit, for sure. We see that what we’re trying to build here has never really been built. There’s no roadmap for building scratch cooking, fast-food sourced seasonally and trying to build a brand around it, so we can’t really look to our peers. We’re trying to build something a little different. So we look to people that have innovated in other spaces and industries to guide us.
Last question: Any next big goals for sweetgreen?
Next big goal, hm. We’re really excited to continue to grow this year, to grow the team. Moments like this are also really important for us, these collaborations. We just did one is Boston that was a lot of fun… There’s no big goal, there are a lot of little goals. I mean, the big goal is to connect people to real food, and that comes through a lot of smaller goals, in a bunch of different ways. Tonight that means eating salad, fried chicken and donuts.
Interviewed by Juliana Sandford and Jennifer Higa
Transcribed by Juliana Sandford
Written by Jennifer Higa
Photography by Juliana Sandford