Sustainable food shop sweetgreen leveraged customer behavior to design data-driven retail stores sand mobile apps

This month, sweetgreen, the destination for simple, seasonal, healthy food launched their new mobile app for iOS. The new app brings together online ordering, payment and sweetgreen rewards, allowing salad loving, farm-to-table enthusiasts the ability to order their healthy fare easily. It allows the customer to visually create their salad while calculating nutritional and caloric information, all of which rolls into the iPhone Health app. sweetgreen also lets you reorder your favorites in just five clicks, and even call an Uber to pick up your salad. Best of all, it shortens the line we’ve all stood in during a lunch rush.

“We’ve reconfigured the back of house operation and created a separate pickup line for app and online orders to further enhance the sweetgreen in-store experience”, says Nathaniel Ru, co-founder and co-CEO. “In the fast-casual space, our app is the first of its kind to offer a more efficient solution for eating healthier on-the-go and we’re really excited to share our innovative platform with our customers.” Since I was in Los Angeles during the launch, I decided to test it out, as well as inspect the retail store design to see how the app experience translated into the store experience.

How sweetgreen Designed a Store That Exemplified its Brand Ethos

As I entered the store, in terms of environment and interior design, I was fairly impressed. The Sunset store was a beautiful, open air, light filled restaurant that reminded me a farm-to-table terrarium. I also checked out their other two Los Angeles locations that featured very different designs, both of which were also stellar.

As I entered the store, I was sidetracked from directly looking into the mobile to in-store experience. I was intrigued by the placement of tables, the brand statements and food information placed strategically around the store. I was giddy about the branded content on newspaper racks and even managed a smirk as I spotted a Walt Disney quote above my head (so very Hollywood and clearly placed there for that location). This is what can be said about sweetgreen retail spaces:

  • They take pride in their retail environments, clearly designing them with the intention to serve as community hubs for real world interactions. The music and art create a vibe that complements the food and makes it fun and accessible to eat healthy.
  • It’s clear that sweetgreen is attempting to cultivate transparency throughout their food supply chain, and in-store. They list their produce sources on a slate “source list” in each location.
  • Taking this idea one step further, sweetgreen’s open kitchen design lets customers see the whole produce coming into the kitchen and prepped throughout the day.

When asked about the details found throughout the store, Farryn Wiener, VP of Marketing, shared:

We value the in-store experience — the visuals, the connections, the music, the overall vibe. With the new app, we can continue to solve for customer pain points and optimize our experience. We’re always looking for what’s next, but it’s important for us to do it the sweetgreen way.

Did sweetgreen Bridge the Mobile to Store Experience?

So, back to the mobile app. Did it live up to the hype? Yes. As you enter the sweetgreen location, the door prominently features app information. Immediately, your eye is drawn up to the signage from that door and you can locate a pick-up line for online orders. You walk over, and voilà, you get your salad, bowl or soup. Then, you are out the door and off to work, home, or wherever you are traveling. The new app also mirrors the in-store experience with compelling, bright imagery and design that connects consumers in a uniquely sweetgreen way.

Using Data to Develop the App and Overhaul Operations

Digging beyond hype is the job of any good retail tech writer. So, imagine my surprise when the press release was actually true. What’s more, you could tell that customer intelligence was being built into the operational process at the start of store concept and design, before they even opened. When asked about the app and operational processes, Farryn further shared:

We set about creating a very thoughtful app that mirrored the sweetgreen in-store experience, with salad customization and brand content. We didn’t want it to feel transactional, and we spent a year to do it right. We built technology to enhance the sweetgreen experience, not replace it. We made sure that:

  • Ops + IT created an algorithm to optimize orders
  • Implemented a new BOH setup, equipment is optimized for productivity, display screens drive accuracy, new chit system optimizes throttle
  • Made significant investments in internal team and back of house operations
  • Changed POS system across the fleet for improved real-time data that would allow us to analyze and optimize our employee and customer experience
  • Collaborated with key partners (online ordering, payment, POS) to integrate technologies for a seamless user experience

And through data simulation and modeling, we developed the layout of new sweetgreen locations to allow for increased efficiency and customer throughput. That leads to shorter waits and seamless online-order pickup. It’s our mission. We build healthier communities. Optimizing our operations and capacity helps us do just that. With technology like this, there’s no excuse to eat unhealthy food — it’s just as “fast” as fast food, with way more nutritional density.

Harnessing Geolocation To Showcase Food Seasonality

One of the finer points in this app is its seasonality function derived from everything above. Using a phone’s geolocation capabilities, they built an ordering system that has individual menus by region, and can intelligently distinguish between items that are in season at each store, or on each regional menu. For example, someone in NYC won’t see Grapefruit or Portobello mushrooms as toppings at sweetgreen Union Square, since those are only seasonal ingredients at sweetgreen’s West Coast outposts this winter.

At The Heart of It All –– Relationships with Farmers Matter

While the use of mobile, geolocation and data are impressive to build efficient restaurant operations, none of this would be possible without having great relationships with their supply chain, so I asked Nathanial how they managed it. He shared:

When entering new markets, we meet farmers before we meet landlords. We do this in a few ways. One is by visiting the local farmer’s market, introducing ourselves and visiting the farms to taste the ingredients. We also talk to area produce distributors and use tech platforms that are working to bridge the gap between local growers and local restaurants. After that, it’s basic cold calling or emailing or sending someone a sweetgreen hat to introduce ourselves and then working with them to plan a visit.

From there, we develop a relationship with the farms who can produce enough ingredients to sustain our volume and build a true partnership with them that allows us to develop regional menus up to a year in advance based on what ingredients they know they’ll have each season. On any given day, we have the produce of 300 farms in our stores. Throughout the year, we have more than 2,000 farms supplying us with ingredients. This is a number that will grow exponentially as we grow and expand to new markets. We work with farmers and growers we trust.

Our suppliers:

  • Are either organic or practice integrated pest management (IPM)
  • Humanely raised poultry that is antibiotic-free, cage-free and fed a vegetarian diet with no animal byproducts
  • Produce cheese that is organic, local, antibiotic and free of RBGH

As you know, all of these sources are right there for you to see on the source list in each sweetgreen location.


Leveraging sweetgreen’s Brand Values to Create Better Restaurant Models

I am always happy when a brand will allow its marketing and data teams to speak freely about how they are achieving success. It helps brands understand not only why transparency is important in any industry, but also shows the steps of success to achieve it. This app is one step in sweetgreen’s evolution, and their data-driven store designs and retail concepts are another. The healthy food revolution is nothing new, but the capitalization of its ideals, overlaid into profitable models is really just beginning.  As companies, brands and food professionals work to define the future of food and retail, they will face a transparency evolution, as well. Looking to ethical brands is going to be a valuable learning tool and vehicle of industry model changes.