When Sweetgreen CEO Jonathan Neman co-founded Sweetgreen 14 years ago, he and the founding team saw a remarkable opportunity to embrace technology both as a means to enhance customer experience, but to do the same for employee experience. The fast-casual restaurant was founded in 2007 in Washington, DC by Neman, and two friends who were fellow undergraduates at Georgetown University: Nicolas Jammet and Nathaniel Ru. (The company moved to Los Angeles in 2016.) Neman referred to how the company became a pioneer in online ordering, which would serve them well during the pandemic, as well as in helping manage the company’s supply chain, since most of the produce used in the company’s salads are procured in partnership with local and regional producers.
Neman underscored that the way technology has aided customer experience is through speed, choice, and personalization. “We want to lower the barriers to entry and make it more accessible to eat healthy food in line with our mission,” he said.
Neman quickly added that the company is in the early stages of its transformation. “While we’re probably a decade into the digital transformation, we’re still in the very early days in terms of how technology is going to disrupt the restaurant business and the food business. As a business gets to over 50% digitized, you can start to re-imagine the business model in a lot of ways.”
Neman sees tremendous advantages derived by the digital penetration of Sweetgreen’s business pre-pandemic that served it well during trying times for the industry across the past 17 months. “Where the rest of the world was playing catch up in terms of technology integration into the [customer] experience, we were built upon that idea, those ideals, and it was native to the experience already.” As a result, customers did not need to pivot too dramatically in order to eat at Sweetgreen during the pandemic.
As Sweetgreen has scaled, the business has grown in complexity. Therefore, the time was right to identify a seasoned leader to act as a steward for what is to come as the company continues to scale. Thus, Sweetgreen has hired Wouleta Ayele to be the company’s new chief technology officer effective August 17. She joins the company from Starbucks where she spent nearly 16 years, ending her tenure there as the senior vice president of technology. “When we met Wouleta, we were blown away by her leadership, her experience, and her perspective,” said Neman. “We thought she’d be the perfect partner to lead us through this next stage of our growth.”
For her part, Ayele was drawn to Sweetgreen based on the company’s mission. “It’s an innovative company that’s leading the way to a healthier future, and I wanted to be part of it,” she said. “The kind of talent that they’ve hired excited me and energized me, as well.”
Having been in food retail for so long, Ayele recognized that her experience will be helpful for a company that wishes to develop the reach and influence of the company she just left. Thus, she counts understanding what it takes to scale from roughly 130 stores the company currently has to an order of magnitude more than that. “Having a clear vision and strategy for [technology and its evolution], I take full, clear accountability for leading the charge on that,” noted Ayele. “[Another] area of focus will be delivering brand-differentiating capabilities. Also, leading with next-generation capabilities, data, and analytics while fostering efficiency will be a focus, as well.” She hastened to add that she views the work ahead as building upon the great work her new team has already done rather than a need to reinvent the technology function within Sweetgreen.
Neman underscored that the pandemic has taught us all to expect the unexpected and to ensure that the company fosters nimbleness as it plans for the future. “Instead of trying to predict the future in terms of what our customers or team members are going to want from a technology perspective, one of the ways in which we think about it is building and architecting a system that allows us to move at the speed of culture,” he said. “As the customer changes and as the business changes, we’re able to continuously stay ahead of those changes.”
Ultimately, Neman believes the pandemic has increased scrutiny on health. This has been an added advantage to the company as it has grown. “Sweetgreen has what I call the trifecta of healthy food, which [is that it] makes you feel good, [it has] an addictive quality and [we have] a customized and personalized [menu], which means you can eat Sweetgreen in every single day and eat something different every day for the rest of your life.”
Peter High is President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He has written two bestselling books, and his third, Getting to Nimble, was recently released. He also moderates the Technovation podcast series and speaks at conferences around the world. Follow him on Twitter @PeterAHigh.