During their senior year at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Nathaniel Ru and some friends always had trouble finding healthy places to eat that were also “fun and easy.” They wondered if the answer lay in a 560 square-foot tavern on M Street in the middle of the downtown area.

It did. Six years later, the eatery they started in the space on M Street has become the 21-store farm-to-table style restaurant chain sweetgreen, said Ru, speaking at the recent Wharton Marketing Conference titled, “The New Era of Marketing: Globalization, Analytics, and Choice.”

It turned out that the landlord of the tavern space was also the landlord of the apartment building around the corner from where Ru and his friends lived. “I called up and explained what we wanted to do, and she just hung up,” said Ru. He or one of his friends proceeded to call the landlord every day for a month before she finally agreed to talk face-to-face. “It was the first and last time I ever wore a suit to a business meeting,” Ru recalled. “We must have had all of three pages of a business plan – at that time, we were going to call the place ‘greens’ – and maybe one page of that was financials.”

But the landlord must have seen some spark in the three young men who were still a semester away from finishing at Georgetown, Ru said. She told them to find an architect and some business backers and come back with a real plan.

“We took three and a half weeks and found some backers and an architect,” said Ru, adding he was grateful that the landlord, probably against her better judgment, had agreed to help a group of college seniors with no previous restaurant experience and give their concept a try. “Now I know how blessed we were to get that chance. We would never be able to do it that way again. The timing was just right.”

“People do not buy what you do. They buy the way that you do it.” –Theresa Dold

Sweetgreen – with one backwards “e” and all the letters in lower case – now has stores in the Northeast’s major cities and their suburbs: Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. The food has continued to be fresh and healthy, with most of the ingredients bought from local farmers and purveyors.

More Than a Salad Bar

Sweetgreen markets itself not merely as a place to buy food, said Theresa Dold — another Georgetown University graduate and sweetgreen’s head of digital marketing, who spoke at the conference with Ru — but as a “why?” company. “From the beginning, the company was more than just about salads. Sweetgreen was started with a deeper purpose.”

She said the founders likened their company to Apple, in that both looked “from the inside out,” thinking about the “why” before thinking about the “what.” In addition, “We both believe in challenging the norm. Apple says, ‘How do we make things that are beautiful and simple to use? We make computers; do you want to buy one?’ If Apple sold bicycles, it would be with the same ‘why?’”

The approach sweetgreen takes in marketing is similar. “We want to be social, sexy, smart and local, and, oh, we have a great line of juices and we throw a music festival every year,” Dold noted. “People do not buy what you do. They buy the way that you do it.”

Expanding on that theory, Ru said that no matter how many stores sweetgreen has, each has to live up to the core values of the company and serve the community around it, not some corporate giant. “In the beginning, we came up with three [values] in our dorm room, and … a year later, we were up to 20, which was a little silly. So then we spent some time thinking about what we were saying every day, and we came up with five [values] that are now posted in every sweetgreen kitchen. They are our way of filtering our decisions.”

First, he stated, is the idea of “win, win, win,” in which the company, the customer and the community all have a stake. A victory for one should be a victory for all in any business decision. Second is the idea of thinking sustainably. “Every decision you make should be for the long term. Everything you do should last longer than you.”

“It has allowed us to be not just a restaurant company, but also a lifestyle brand.” –Nathaniel Ru

Third is the not-so-new concept of “keeping it real.” By that, Ru said that everything should be authentic, from the demeanor of the employees to the source of the food product. Fourth was adding the sweet – as in sweetgreen – touch. If employees give 110%, the customer will tell a friend, and it also becomes a marketing achievement. Finally, he said, the point of the whole enterprise is to make an impact. “We do it together, which is why we come to work every day.”

A Musical Solution

The signature moment for the company, said Ru, came from what other companies might have thought of as a disaster. The founders had an opportunity in April 2009 to get a bigger space near Dupont Circle, a fashionable retail area in the middle of Washington. ”We had spent way too much, but we opened, and our parents and our investors were there,” but no one showed up. In fact, there were no customers in the first two weeks. Instead of panicking, the owners came up with the idea of getting new speakers and playing music every Saturday and Sunday outside the store. It had been one of those “why?” ideas the founders had when they started – to connect music to food.

“There was an emotional connection, and that was the experience for bringing in customers,” Ru noted. The next year, they created a “music and food experience” in a parking lot next to a farmer’s market where they bought a lot of their food. “We did it again, and 600 people showed up.” Over the last four years, the event — now named “sweetlife” — has become the region’s largest music and food festival, attracting as many as 20,000 people and dozens of local food purveyors, from food trucks to some of the original farmers.

“It has allowed us to be not just a restaurant company, but also a lifestyle brand,” said Ru. “Yes, you always want to market to your tribe. We serve wraps and yogurt, but really we leave people better off in several ways.”

According to Dold and Ru, the “tribe” they market to wants to feel connected to some sort of community. Sweetgreen has a mobile app to allow customers to pay at the counter. Customers can still use cash or a credit card, but by using the app, they can amass points that, after $100, puts them into “green” status. Once they get to that level, a percentage of their purchases can be contributed to “sweetgreen in school,” the company’s dedicated program to teach healthy eating to underserved students in their cities.

Dold said another important “tribal” marketing initiative at the company is to partner with other healthy lifestyle businesses. In Washington, D.C., for instance, sweetgreen has held yoga classes in a restaurant and done cross-promotions with gyms and fitness clubs, often directing customers to instructors, who then might send their own customers to sweetgreen stores.

In Washington, D.C., sweetgreen has held yoga classes in a restaurant and done cross-promotions with gyms and fitness clubs.

The “sweet touch,” too, added Dold, is an important part of marketing, even when it is subtle. “It goes back to the core values. Our goal is always as a company to leave guests better off than we found them.” Employees, for example, are encouraged to rush to the door to open it for a mother with her hands full, or someone weighted down with loads of packages. If it rains, there are sweetgreen umbrellas at the ready. Dold said an intern at the store came up with an idea to use shower caps to cover customers’ bicycle seats when it rains, and then put a sweetgreen coupon under the caps.

“We tend to be in cities which have no shortage of parking tickets,” she said.  “When we see one, we put a coupon on the window as well as something ‘sweet’ to go along with that ticket, leaving a smile, we hope.”

As the company grows, Ru noted, it has to fight off the possibility of just being another cookie-cutter chain. Thus, each of the new stores has its own architect and a design that reflects local tastes. There is a food-sourcing blackboard in every store, to show which ingredients came from local vendors.

Finally, Ru stated, it is important that sweetgreen also services its employees. The community, he said, starts with them. “Yes, we are a cult,” he admitted, with only a slight chuckle. “We want to hire not just good, but great, people, so we often use the snowball effect, hiring friends of the best employees.”

According to Ru, sweetgreen found that the best financial results came from stores where the teams had been together the longest, so he and his partners are attuned to giving not only customers, but also employees, good experiences. One time, on a company “impact day” – an offsite retreat to elicit ideas from employees – the organizers helped two employees who were engaged plan their marriage and wedding party. “It is the kind of thing that becomes part of company lore – something memorable for employees and a way to recruit good people,” he said. “It may be the digital age, but in the end, the best marketing is personal.”