By Noah Kaufman
Updated January 06, 2016
Credit: © Andrew and Gemma Ingalls

“I grew up in a food family all the way back to my great-grandfather.” Such is the gastronomic pedigree of Nicolas Jammet, one of the founders of Sweetgreen, the healthy fast food chain that’s now 39 restaurants strong.

Despite his long family history—Jammet’s parents ran legendary New York restaurant La Caravelle, where, Nicolas says, every customer who ever walked in was personally greeted by them—he never intended to work in food. He dabbled in a few tried and true moneymaking options like real estate and banking, but ultimately he came bounding back to the family business. While his parents made their name in the world of elegant and certainly, at times, heavy French cuisine, Nicolas Jammet intended to move in a different direction.

“When you look at nine or ten years ago when Sweetgreen started, you could see glimmers of this healthier way of eating. But it was always niche.” And he, along with cofounders Jonathan Neman and Nate Ru, quickly immersed themselves in that niche.

Long before Chipotle made fast food headlines pushing its story of “Food with Integrity,” Jammet and his Sweetgreen team were pounding the pavement of the farmers’ markets in their home base of Washington, D.C. Jammet developed relationships with the farmers there, which ultimately gave him access to some of the freshest ingredients in the area.

Jammet was working with a totally different notion of fast food from most everyone else in the country, and Sweetgreen became known as a go-to spot for easy access to kale, quinoa and more. When Jammet and company opened their second restaurant, they made sure it was directly on D.C.’s famed Dupont Market. If a customer wanted to know where the tomatoes in her salad came from, Jammet could point out the door and tell her to go chat with the farmer. “How to keep the story in the food is something we talk about quite a bit,” Jammet told me. And it is that story, perhaps more than the brick and mortar restaurants, that he truly wants to expand. As he puts it: “We’re scaling a belief in food. We believe you should celebrate things when they come out of the ground and from the people that are growing them.”

To that end, Jammet and Sweetgreen no longer operate exclusively in the restaurant space. Sweetgreen began a program of elementary school education, teaching fourth and fifth graders about seasonality and nutrition.

Jammet and his team also enlisted a significant amount of star power from both inside the food world and out. Chefs who have partnered with Sweetgreen include David Chang and Dan Barber, and their Sweetlife Music Festival, now in its sixth year, will have performances from artists as diverse as Billy Idol and Kendrick Lamar.

But even with all the fanfare, for Jammet, it all circles back to a real love of eating better. “[Years ago] we saw a redefining around the word ‘healthy’ coming and we wanted to lead that change.” With a small but growing salad empire that now stretches all the way across the country, Jammet and Sweetgreen seem to be doing just that.