Sweetgreen is a locavore’s dream. Walk into the new salad restaurant, opening in West Hollywood on Thursday, and you’ll be greeted with bin after bin of fresh produce in the sleek open kitchen. You’ll see a chalkboard listing the sources of two dozen ingredients, like Tamai Family Farms strawberries, Muranaka Farm beets, Belfiore feta cheese, and California Olive Ranch extra virgin olive oil. Bread is from Zack Hall of Clark Street Bread, who’s been friends with Sweetgreen co-founder Jonathan Neman since their elementary-school days in L.A.
“He was a musician growing up, always really creative,” Neman recalls. “Then a few years ago, he just fell in love with baking. I remember he told me he was going to do this. I thought it was a very cool but crazy idea. Fast forward, and he’s making bread for Trois Mec, Petit Trois, and Sqirl.”
Hall, like some others who supply the new West Third Street restaurant, is about as small-batch as it gets, so Sweetgreen talked him into upping his production. Because, you see, Sweetgreen is also what could be viewed as a very cool but crazy idea that’s proven to be a game-changer: it’s a farm-to-table—stem-to-root, even—fast-food restaurant with salad ingredients that are entirely prepared and assembled in-house.
It’s an L.A.-minded empire that started in Washington, D.C. in 2007—launched by three friends a month after they graduated from Georgetown—and has finally made its way to California. It’s a growing chain that counts West Hollywood as its 30th location, and its Santa Monica restaurant, which will open later this year, as its 31st. It’s a chain where every outpost is different because every Sweetgreen is based on local farms and seasons.
“It’s a lot harder serving seasonal fast food,” says co-founder Nathaniel Ru, who grew up in Pasadena. “But sometimes, it actually helps us because our menu isn’t so dogmatic. We can actually engineer the best quality and the best produce.”
Before Sweetgreen signs a lease in any city, it gets to know the local markets and farms. With the brand’s buying power, co-founder Nicolas Jammet says, Sweetgreen can plan its menus a year in advance.
“We’ll tell a strawberry farmer we need strawberries next May,” Jammet says.
Soon, Sweetgreen will start serving broccoli leaves.
“It’s just as healthy as kale if not more healthy,” says Jammet, who was turned onto the ingredient when he visited a farm and realized the leaves were just being put back in the ground.
Similarly, a lettuce farmer had purslane growing wild at the edge of his rows.
“We all kind of freaked out,” Jammet says. “That’s purslane that goes for $20 a pound at the farmers’ market. The farmer was like, ‘Oh, those weeds, you want those too?’”
Being in L.A. also means serving new offerings like the Hollywood Bowl, which showcases “incredible” jicama along with organic wild rice, shredded kale, grapes, local raisins, sprouted almonds, goat cheese, roasted chicken, and balsamic vinaigrette.
“It’s fast food, but the menu changes based on every city,” Jammet says.
And even Sweetgreen standbys taste different in L.A. than they do in other cities. Ru makes this point as he’s digging into a Guacamole Greens bowl and smiles when he realizes that the avocados in L.A. are unlike those served in Washington D.C. or New York, where Sweetgreen opened at the swanky NoMad Hotel in 2013.
Sweetgreen, which changes each of its menus five times a year and serves iced teas and light agua frescas (no bottled beverages or sodas of any kind), has raised tens of millions in funding led by AOL co-founder Steve Case’s venture-capital fund. Its food-world investors include Shake Shack mogul Danny Meyer and A-list chefs David Chang, José Andrés, and Daniel Boulud. Like Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson’s forthcoming Loco’l, Sweetgreen’s goal is to disrupt the fast-food industry and change how future generations eat. (Sweetgreen even has an in-school program that educates students about nutrition.)
Sweetgreen is doing its share of disrupting through food, tech—its app is responsible for about 20 percent of its orders in New York—and also as a lifestyle brand. Sweetgreen puts on the annual Sweetlife music festival, which has booked everyone from The Strokes to Avicii to Kendrick Lamar (who inspired the “Beets Don’t Kale My Vibe” salad).
That festival had modest beginnings. When Sweetgreen opened its second location, also in D.C., “we played music outside because we didn’t have any business,” Ru recalls. “That led to a block party, which led to a music festival.”
And on June 4, in the lot behind the West Hollywood restaurant, part of an of-the-moment complex that will soon include Belcampo Meat Co. and Verve Coffee Roasters, Sweetgreen is partnering with The Fader on a concert. The lineup is still being finalized, but you can expect it to be local.
Sweetgreen, 8055 W. Third St., West Hollywood; coming soon to 1351 Fourth St., Santa Monica