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Jonathan Neman: The Sweetlife Festival Was a Result of Desperation for Customers

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Jonathan Neman, the CEO and co-founder of sweetgreen, sat down with us last night at Tech Cocktail Sessions DC and talked about how important real estate is to his company’s brand. With stores known for their modern, earthy designs, Neman touched upon the topic of how real estate itself can serve as an important marketing tool for any restaurant (or company, in general). More importantly, he emphasized how location can have a major effect on whether you’ll have customers actually coming through the door. At last night’s event, Neman shared with us the interesting story of how a tactical error in choosing real estate eventually led to the birth of the sweetlife festival.

“We were the first retail restaurant on that side of the street [in Dupont Circle]…we had no customers. We were really, really struggling,” said Neman. “I remember we looked at each other and were like ‘dream’s over; we have to get real jobs.'”

After the success of their first store in Georgetown, sweetgreen opened up a second location downtown at Dupont Circle with the expectation that they’d get a lot of foot traffic. Well, that wasn’t happening: people weren’t checking them out, and the investment in such an expensive location simply wasn’t working out.

So, I mean, what does one do when you’re desperate for customers? “We decided that we should start playing music on the sidewalk…we just started, like, DJing on the sidewalk.” Along with his co-founders, the company literally played music for people on the streets, talked with customers, and offered free samples. This strategy worked – and it worked more successfully than they had anticipated.

“We did this every week for a few months. And it just…kind of evolved into a block party.”

The following summer, sweetgreen actually started throwing free block parties where local bands and DJs got the chance to perform for a few hundred people. Inspired by their well-attended block parties, the company wanted to create a music festival with the hope of attracting 2,000 people. With a little luck on their side, they managed to land a sweet band (The Strokes) at a sweet location (Merriweather Post Pavillion) and attracted an even sweeter crowd (13,000 people).

This year’s sweetlife festival (May 10th, y’all) will be sweetgreen’s fourth, and is expected to bring in over 20,000 people. Not too shabby for something that started out as a desperate play for customers.

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About the Author

Ronald Barba is a staff writer and the East Coast reporter for Tech Cocktail. Formerly a DC native, he's now based in New York City. He reports on the Boston, Chicago, D.C., and NYC tech scenes. He's especially interested in venture capital, M&As, and tech/business trends. Aside from startups, Ronald is interested in philosophy, cognitive science, politics, social justice, pop culture, and all things geek. He reads Murakami and Barthes, and alternates binge watch sessions of 'Doctor Who' and 'The Mindy Project'. Got something to say? Then email me (ronald@tech.co). Follow me on Twitter: @RonaldPBarba. Subscribe to me on Facebook. Find me on Google.

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