The secret to sweetgreen's salads isn't what you'd expect: tech.
The Culver City-based company is using cutting-edge technology across all parts of its business — from growing and serving healthy, seasonal food to supporting the communities and food systems it leans on.
We caught up with three of the sweetgreen's leaders to learn more about the work the company is doing. Read on to see what they told us — every delicious morsel.
EMPLOYEES: 4,000+; 200+ locally in their corporate office or "Treehouse"
WHAT THEY DO: A destination for healthy, community-focused food, sweetgreen is leveraging cutting edge tech to build a transparent supply network that takes account of every human who grows, ships and eats their food.
WHERE THEY DO IT: Culver City
SALAD DAYS: Employees at sweetgreen are never at a loss for lunch. The company provides free lunch via their restaurant and test kitchen, located just downstairs.
Kirby Bumpus, Head of Social Impact and Inclusion
Kirby heads up social impact and inclusion programs at sweetgreen, helping to bring the company's mission of connecting people to real food to life.
FOODIE, FOR REAL: Kirby loves trying new restaurants and any and all things food.
You come from a really interesting professional background. How did you end up taking a leadership role at sweetgreen?
I have always looked for a place where I can learn but also add value, and that has led me to some interesting jobs. I first started my career as a health educator in a direct service role doing HIV counseling when I was in college. I’ve worked on the foundation side, which has given me an incredible appreciation for the importance of evaluation — not just giving money to organizations that are well intentioned, but to orgs that are really focused on driving impact. I also spent five years in government where I worked on the federal agency side of the Department of Health of Human Services as a policy advisor. While in government, I also worked at the White House as a senior policy advisor focused on Let’s Move, which was first lady Michele Obama’s initiative focused on physical and nutritional activities for children and their families.
This opportunity at sweetgreen was this perfect blend of my experiences, and after speaking to the founders and leadership, I realized that the company was about more than making salad: It was about transforming the food system. I wanted the opportunity to be a part of that.
What is really unique about sweetgreen is that impact is not an arm of the business — it is the business. It permeates into everything that we do.”
Social impact is a kind of hazy idea to wrap your head around, especially for people who come from outside this space. What exactly does your job entail?
What is really unique about sweetgreen is that impact is not an arm of the business — it is the business. It permeates into everything that we do.
We have created a culture where both our employees and consumers care deeply about knowing that we are a brand that is mission and value driven. One example that I love to point to is our partnership with the LA Food Policy Council to renovate Hank's Mini Market to make it more of a food access hub within the South LA community. And everyone from our team was involved.
Our engineering and data teams took the owners point of sale system from pen and paper to a digital platform. Design came in and helped with the aesthetics to create culturally relevant imagery. Marketing was very helpful in terms of the placement of fruits and veggies in the shop. I use this example because this is a reflection of the way that we like to think about how we can support a social impact initiative beyond just writing a check.
Tell us about some of the projects your team is working on right now. How does sweetgreen support these projects?
Sweetgreen in Schools is a major priority for us, and it's a partnership with Food Corps, a nonprofit that connects kids to real food. We've stepped in to support their hands-on education work, which includes cooking and gardening in schools across the country, as well as aiding the incredible research they're doing in the school cafeteria space that puts students in the driver's seat to affect change.
We’re leveraging taste tests so that students can try fruits and vegetables prepared in different ways and then vote — using tech-enabled voting — to see the foods they like most show up in their cafeteria. Our marketing team has been very involved in telling that story, and our culinary and supply chain teams have provided flavor suggestions and recommendations. It’s a really fun project for us to work on because it allows our team to leave their day to day and gives us an opportunity to share our expertise and our space in such an impactful way.
Paul Horvath, CTO
It's Paul's job to ensure that customers have the best, most cutting edge and magical digital experiences — which, he admits, is always a work in progress. His work also includes developing tech tools for supply chain implementation and higher transparency throughout that process.
ON THE HIGH SEAS: Paul is an avid boater. Hitting the ocean helps him to decompress and unwind. "It’s tough to be stressed and to focus on work when you’re in the middle of a pod of dolphins," Paul says. His team often does group excursions out at sea.
People don’t necessarily think about sweetgreen as a tech company. As the person on the front lines leading that effort, how would you persuade them otherwise?
A lot of tech goes into the salads we serve, and it's part of my job to help convey the message, which is, yes, the end product is a bowl that contains salad and veggies but getting there requires modern technology and inventions.
For example, we use supply chain to extract very specific nutritional information from the food that goes into a customer's bowl and help them understand what they're eating affects their body. Then there is the digital work that we’re doing for people who want to focus on app development or website or digital shopping or e-commerce — we’re quite literally the most innovative food company, and we're working on the most innovative digital experiences.
Similarly, the way we get those salads produced invites all kinds of opportunities to use technology and to invent all kinds of stuff.
[...] we’re quite literally the most innovative food company, and we're working on the most innovative digital experiences.”
How do you see technology fitting into the company’s larger goals and missions?
One of the things I do is ensure that as our company grows we see economies at scale. We want to be able to spend less per bowl, which should help us manage those prices and continue to allow us to provide that real food at scale. We have to strive to ensure we are working as efficiently as possible on the supply chain side to keep our costs down.
What about your company or your work inspires you?
What is most exciting to me about sweetgreen is taking all of my experience, including at one of the world's largest companies, and being able to really give back. We’re connecting people to real food and helping communities and helping kids — and for me as a technologist, being able to give back and mentor the next generation of technologists, while teaching them how to do world-class engineering, is just really rewarding and allows me to fulfill my own personal mission.
Jenn Cornelius, Chief People Officer
Jenn serves as a member of sweetgreen's executive team, helping to drive business strategy while leveraging deep people expertise in everything from attracting talent to retaining and developing members of the sweetgreen team.
ALONG FOR THE RIDE: Jenn is really into fitness generally — ask her about her Peloton bike, which she is very, very excited about.
So much of people ops revolves around company culture — building, maintaining or reversing it. What is special about the culture at sweetgreen?
I think the special part is the deep connection to our values. A big part of that connection has brought us not only diverse perspectives on life and work but also shared experiences. What's cool about walking around here is that you have people that come from different places and are connected to different things but who work together and get along. People really do care about what they are doing, and they are trying to do their best. I think that’s special, and you don’t find it everywhere.
The people were a big part of the reason that I joined sweetgreen.”
How would you describe your leadership or management style?
I thrive when I can empower my team and get out of their way. I like to remove obstacles to enable people to be at their best and put them in the limelight. I’m good at setting a vision and direction, so setting clarity and transparency are also very central to my leadership style.
I believe wholeheartedly in people's potential, so I try to lead from that place always — really helping people understand what their gifts are and then matching that to their work to truly maximize the potential in people.
What about your work inspires you?
The people were a big part of the reason that I joined sweetgreen. That's a trend in my working life. When I think about my career and the companies I’ve worked for, the choice always came down to the people. I’ve always tried to work with people that are more talented than I am and that will lift me up and make me better. Ultimately, what really fulfills me is seeing people grow and learning something new.