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Lessons from: Sweetgreen

We help our clients build and create better food-to-go operations. Understanding trends, activations and concepts globally can provide huge benefits. To support this, we regularly visit innovative concepts globally to help our clients better understand the trends in the market and their opportunities for development.  In this series we take a closer look at some the key benchmark concepts in food-to-go, this time focusing on the hugely successful and agenda-driving US salad concept Sweetgreen.


The concept in summary:


Sweetgreen’s reason for being is its salads. From an initial store set up in Washington DC, it now trades from c. 225 locations across the US. Its served-over salad bar concepts are nicely differentiated, combining a slick, modern, design with a focus on enticing, seasonal and local products.


Image sources: FFI & Sweetgreen

Lessons you can take from Sweetgreen right now:


  • Promoting seasonality. We’ve long been impressed by the use of ingredients seasonality as a positive, helping to drive broader promotional campaigns to celebrate ingredients' arrival, and feeding into a menu that is built around seasonality.

  • Product & ingredient led marketing.  The principle here is very much to let the product and the ingredients do the talking and the selling. The triggers behind food-to-go – and particularly salad – purchases include hugely important considerations around quality and freshness of product. So if you’re working hard to source great ingredients, why not show those off in-store, and why not use the actual products rather than just images of what it should look like in the best case scenario.  There are two key aspects to how Sweetgreen deliver this, firstly around ensuring the core produce – or selected elements from it – are visible to customers on entering and ordering, and secondly around telling customers where you’re sourcing products from. Sweetgreen’s blackboard style presentation does this to great effect, calling out the specific farms that are providing individual ingredients into store. We first saw this almost a decade ago in Sweetgreen in Boston, but it’s still an area that we think others could learn from.  

  • Sticking to the mission.  The original inspiration was the perceived lack of healthy, affordable food options while the three founders were studying at Georgetown University. And from that basis, the mission of building healthier communities by connecting people to real food has been brought to key cities across the US, with plans for significant further expansion. Consider your mission and core values carefully, it’s a powerful tool to both internally align and externally communicate.  If it's not in use across the business daily, then perhaps it's not doing all it could for you.


  • Consider the operational impacts of menu extension. When extending the menu, think about the model and the ingredients you’re already carrying.  Sweetgreen for example added protein plates late last year, but made these simpler to prepare than core salad lines. Crucially they were able to add more choice and appeal to different customers and missions, without compromising core operational efficiency.

Next steps and learnings to consider:


  • Consider who you're targeting when upgrading your loyalty proposition - there might be more than one target customer group, particularly if you're thinking about different time of day solutions. Across the board we see loyalty as a key area of focus in food-to-go right now. Introduced over 2023, Sweetgreen’ Sweetpass is very much part of the latest iteration of loyalty schemes, There are two levels, Sweetpass and Sweetpass Plus. Sweetpass Plus is a paid for upgrade, costing USD10 per month (or USD100 per year), but giving a USD3 discount on every purchase. Rewards and challenges - typically linked to menu item/ visits. - form part of the app, and provide a nice way to promote and encourage trial of new products.  

  • How technology can support proposition evolution. Digital ordering is one aspect of this, but the more exciting element of Sweetgreen's Infinite Kitchen concept lies in its automated production line. Initially launched in Springfield, Illinois, this has been extended into a second store and will become a substantial part of the new store opening programme going forward. There are clear benefits in terms of the use of labour, with a reduction in the assembly labour of 70%. And interestingly, this has fed through into a higher ticket value, which Sweetgreen believes is due to customers feeling less pressure when ordering via kiosks rather than being in the line and therefore having time to make more considered purchasing decisions.  It’s also seen benefits in more accurate portioning, creating better product, more accurately representing its initial conception.  From H2 2024 onwards, the Infinite Kitchen will be in 40% of new stores, while it will also be retrofitted into selected urban stores.

  • Better understand how a Sweetgreen style proposition is being applied to different meal solutions and different geographies. Within the US, but based on a Mediterranean cuisine, CAVA is another operator well worth watching, while the likes of Dig and Just Salad also impress. Albeit not on the scale of Sweetgreen, in Europe, we've seen a range of quality focused salad operators growing over recent years. As one example, take London, where atis, The Salad Project, Urban Greens, Salad Kitchen and Farmer J's all boast similarities in model and positioning. Indeed we see a continuing opportunity across a range of markets for concepts like this.

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