Sweetgreen is now the restaurant world's first "unicorn," valued at over $1 billion. Started by three college friends out of their dorm room at Georgetown University, the salad company has 91 locations with more in the works and is vying to become the digital food platform of the future.
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Sweetgreen is the first-ever unicorn salad start-up, luring lunchtime lines across the country with its millenial- and Gen Z-friendly $12 salads. Now, the brand that brought the farm-to-table trend to fast-casual dining wants to be "the Starbucks of salads."
"If I had told you 25 years ago, when Starbucks only had a few locations, that someday it would be a global phenomenon … nobody would have believed that. ... But, that's what happened," Sweetgreen investor and billionaire Steve Case told CNBC. Today, Starbucks has a market value of nearly $90 billion. "And so that's what we feel with Sweetgreen."
Like Starbucks, Sweetgreen started with a single store.
The brand was founded in 2007 after then-Georgetown students Jonathan Neman, Nicolas Jammet, and Nathaniel Ru (who met in an entrepreneurship class) got tired of the unhealthy and uninspiring food options around campus and decided to do something about it.
"The most delicious food, the coolest food … was all the least healthy," Jammet tells CNBC Make It. "None of them made us feel that good, and we wanted to solve that problem."
Neman, Jammet and Ru, all now 33, settled on the concept for Sweetgreen — fast but healthy meals that taste good and feature ingredients from local farmers — before they'd even finished taking their finals, and they hosted taste tests of future menu items with other students in Jammet's dorm room.
"We even had these little anonymous surveys people could fill out," Jammet tells CNBC Make It. (An early iteration of the chain's Guacamole Greens salad was the most popular dish then, he says, and it remains one of the store's biggest fan favorites.)
The friends raised over $300,000 from 50 investors — mainly family and friends — and three months after graduating, opened the first Sweetgreen in a 560-square-foot shack near the Georgetown University campus.
The bathroom was bigger than the kitchen, Ru and Jammet remember. "We really had no idea what we were doing," Jammet says.
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How Sweetgreen became the Starbucks of salads with a valuation of over $1 billion | CNBC Make It.