Building a Community-First Food Chain

Building a Community-First Food Chain

Building a Community-First Food Chain 1440 428 Chute Gerdeman

A new wave fast casual restaurant concepts are redefining industry standards by embracing a consumer food lifestyle. From the restaurant experience to brand culture to community connection, things have got a whole lot bigger than just the food.

Millennials are largely fueling this new interest in the “experience economy.” And brands are being driven to design something bigger than just a moment or a meal. Fast casual restaurant chain Sweetgreen is giving new meaning to community as a connection point across the U.S.

The brand opened their first farm-to-table restaurant experience in 2007 in Georgetown. At the time, the three founders, just mere college students at the university, were frustrated with a lack of healthy options available on campus. They wanted to create a concept that provided local, organic food at an affordable price in a cool environment—better yet, a sustainable environment. In a small 550 square foot refurbished tavern without seats, they opened Sweetgreen. They knew the market was in demand for a concept like this, but they quickly grew to capacity with lines out the door.

In search of a second, larger location they settled on Dupont Circle, a trendy, historic neighborhood in the heart of Washington, D.C. Anticipating equal excitement and success as the first store opening, they were surprised when even the backing of some big time promotional efforts couldn’t seem to bring in the crowds. After days of non-exist foot traffic, and a third location not far from opening, they realized they had to do something…. make some noise.

They went to their local Guitar Center, bought a guitar, speakers, and DJ equipment and set up shop outside to introduce the brand to the community. People responded and word of mouth travelled. They hosted performances every weekend until the energy couldn’t be contained to the sidewalk. With hundreds of people now in attendance, they moved it to the store’s back parking lot where it joined the biggest farmers market in D.C. “What we realized is that we didn’t just fix the Dupont store. Building the community was how we were going to build this business,” said Sweetgreen Co-founder Nicolas Jammet.

“Music has always been an essential part of the Sweetgreen DNA — like food, it’s a universal language that brings great people together.” This naturally led to the development of an annual food and music fest, The Sweetlife. In it’s 7th year running the festival serves as a catalyst for a healthy change in communities and the commitment to building a better living—The Sweetlife.

Hosted at the famous Merriweather Post Pavillion in Columbia Maryland, the festival draws in tens of thousands, and is now one of the region’s largest, most anticipated festivals. Tickets cost $100-$150 for VIP access, but all proceeds are donated to the Sweetgreen in School program. This year’s line up includes high profile performers Blondie and indie bands like Wolf Alice, The 1975, and Hasley.

Doing things on their own terms versus a hyper sponsored social event with national brands, they’ve also crafted the cool list of concessions. They’ve partnered with some of the best up and coming and established restaurant brands offering a culmination of unique culinary perspectives, guaranteed to entice the biggest foodie appetites. From Coolhaus gourmet ice creams to Buredo’s burrito sized sushi rolls to Brooklyn’s ever so popular Luke’s Lobsters it’s a harmonious food set list.

While the Sweetlife festival may serve as a “party with a purpose,” the fast casual brand also wanted to give back and help educate the youth of today in the communities they serve. They introduced a student food program ‘Sweetgreen in Schools’ to educate 4th and 5th graders through a series of hands-on educational classes teaching them the benefits of healthy eating and the larger impact that their food choices make. Making learning fun, the curriculum includes: Eating the Rainbow, Healthy Plants + Healthy Bodies, Eat Locally and Seasonally, Salad Challenge (Iron Chef style), Sustainability + Helping the Community, and Veggie Rap Recap.

Sweetgreen has positioned itself as lifestyle brand connecting passion with purpose and people with community. While the model may be replicated their approach is authentic—from their initial roots to the mini-empire they’ve cultivated today.

This demand for real life experiences should be something that makes retailers and restaurants take note. While consumers may spend a large part of their days online, what they’re looking to spend money on is a larger experience, something that offers more than just a receipt at the end of the day. And while Millennials may be leading the way in the movement, Boomers have more disposable income, and let’s not forget Gen Z who has already spent a fair share of their life looking up to their older gen.

Photo Credit: Sweetgreen

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