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If legacy restaurant companies could start from scratch, most of them would want to look like Sweetgreen. The high-end salad chain, backed by big-name investors like Steve Case, Danny Meyer, and Daniel Boulud, hits all of the right notes in today’s food industry—healthy, fresh, organic, and local. The recipe has resonated with diners, who keep lines long at Sweetgreen’s 40 locations.
“We’re creating a brand that stands for something,” says co-CEO Nathaniel Ru. “We want to feed more people better food.”
But traditional chains could learn about more than just food from the company’s co-CEOs. The Georgetown University classmates have been tech pioneers and 30% of Sweetgreen transactions are made through its website or mobile app. “Technology has always been part of our DNA,” Ru says.
The trio are also rethinking management strategies. To stay close to customers, Sweetgreen almost completely shuts down the corporate office five times per year so that everyone can work in its restaurants. The company, which recently opened offices in Los Angeles, operates without a main headquarters; the co-CEOs are bicoastal as they try to grow the company nationally.
“We don’t believe in big corporate headquarters,” Ru says. “We wanted to decentralize our headcount.”
Ru and his fellow co-CEOs Jonathan Neman and Nicolas Jammet met at Georgetown University, where they took an entrepreneurship class together. Another point of overlap: All three have parents who started their own businesses and are also first-generation immigrants.
The co-founders felt that the Georgetown area lacked healthy eating options so they made that their focus when they opened their first restaurant in August 2007 just after graduating from college. The trio told Fortune in 2014 that they knew they would survive as a business when they made it through their first winter break when campus emptied out as all of the students went home on vacation.
4 questions with Nathaniel Ru:
What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
I'd tell myself to read more books—even more than you think you have time for.
What’s the hardest thing about managing?
Jon, Nic and I used to do every role in the company—to scale, we knew we needed to build a team, but it can be hard to let go of some of the work. We've learned it's important to build a team around you sooner than you feel comfortable doing so.
What other CEO not in your industry do you admire most?
I look up to Kevin Plank and what he's done with Under Armour – it's a company that stands for something bigger than itself.
What’s your favorite restaurant (beside Sweetgreen)?
Johnny Monis' Little Serow is a DC favorite — great Northern Thai food, with really great service. It's a really memorable experience.