We get it. Custom made meals served in biodegradable bowls and ordered through an app or over a sneeze guard are really good and really convenient.
We get it. Custom made meals served in biodegradable bowls and ordered through an app or over a sneeze guard are really good and really convenient.
And plenty sell each year—the fast casual sector posted an 8% sales gain in 2018, and traffic jumped 3% in the space despite the fact that total U.S. foodservice traffic was flat as a board. You can thank a confluence of factors from the ’08 financial crisis to rising rents for the industry’s recent ascent.
But not even the fast casual space, home to relatively fast, relatively cheap, and relatively healthy food we’ve seamlessly integrated into our lives and diets, is safe from COVID-19. The sector, much like fine dining and the rest of the hospitality space, has been brought to its knees by shutdowns designed to keep us all safe...and at home.
So today on Business Casual, we’re exploring what makes fast casual tick, what’s changed since the coronavirus set in, and what comes next for the Chipotles of the world. Most importantly? We’re pinpointing exactly what it is that helped fast casual thrive through the last recession—and determining which of those lessons can help us get through today.
This episode features two entrepreneurs in different stages of building their businesses: Nicolas Jammet of famed salad company Sweetgreen and Chef JJ Johnson of Harlem’s new(ish) rice bowl shop Fieldtrip.
We decided to bring in not one, but two experts to show differing perspectives on building moats around a business.
The insight the two bring...to the table...is unbeatable. They’re operating and more importantly adapting during an unimaginably difficult time for business and in a sector notorious for razor-thin margins.
Listen now to get their perspectives.
+ FYI, this is Part II of our two-part exploration of the restaurant industry in a post-COVID world. If you want to hear Part I, go check it out. It features fine dining czar Chef Marcus Samuelsson and tackles issues like government funding, small business, furloughs, and so much more.
Kinsey Grant, Morning Brew business editor and podcast host [00:00:07] Hey, everybody, and welcome to Business Casual, the podcast from Morning Brew, answering your biggest questions in business. I'm your host and Brew business editor, Kinsey Grant. And now, let's get into it. [sound of a ding]
Kinsey [00:00:18] In our most recent episode, I started a conversation on restaurants and COVID-19 with chef and entrepreneur Marcus Samuelsson. Marcus is one of New York City's most well-known restaurateurs. He runs restaurants all over the world, but we would say his most famous is Red Rooster in Harlem, which is one of New York City's best, most vibrant neighborhoods. If you took a listen to the episode with Chef Marcus, you know how intimately he understands COVID-19's hit on employees, government support, and the bottom line better than anyone. If you haven't taken a listen yet, I highly recommend you go check it out. But it's worth noting that that was just the beginning of our conversation about restaurants and COVID.
Kinsey [00:00:56] Odds are you haven't eaten at Marcus' restaurant in Harlem before. If you have, though, it's probably more of a once a year, maybe once every six months, experience than a Tuesday night bite to eat on the way home from work. So what about the restaurants that touch your life more often? Maybe all the time. What about the Chipotles and the Paneras of the world, aka the Fast Casuals? And you know exactly what I'm talking about when I say fast casual. They've been one of the biggest success stories of the last decades in food, but fast casual restaurants are still a relatively new concept. They started opening in the 1990s, promising healthier food than what was readily available at fast food chains, but just as fast as those chains and cheaper than full-service restaurants.
Kinsey [00:01:36] And since then, fast casual has absolutely blown up. And that's thanks to a handful of factors. One of them being the Great Recession, some others being rising rents and food prices, and even the smartphones that make ordering online as easy as could be. So today, we're diving deep on the topic of fast casuals. I'm talking to two entrepreneurs in different stages of building their fast casual empires. First, there's Nicolas Jammet of salad company Sweetgreen. And I'm also talking to Chef JJ Johnson of rice bowl shop Fieldtrip. First, I'm going to introduce you to both of them. And then once we're all acquainted, we'll get into a conversation I had with the two of them. So now, let's get started.
Kinsey [00:02:16] Nicolas Jammet is the brains behind your harvest bowl, the creativity behind your Kale Caesar, the shaman of Shroomami, and if you're not one of the millions of devotees to the brand he helped create, he is the co-founder and chief concept officer at Sweetgreen, one of the country's most beloved, albeit sometimes polarizing, fast casual chains. Nicolas, thank you for being on Business Casual. I'm excited to talk to you today.
Nicolas Jammet, Co-founder of Sweetgreen [00:02:39] Thanks for having me.
Kinsey [00:02:40] I am a big Sweetgreen fan myself, as anybody who knows me is well aware. I frequent the Sweetgreen on Bleecker Street right by my apartment all the time when I am in New York. I love it there. They have a great staff. But we're talking about more than just the staff [laughs] at Sweetgreen and the salads that you guys create. We're talking about an impactful, wide-ranging question we're gonna get to in a second. But before we start, I have to know—inquiring minds are curious—what do you order when you go to Sweetgreen? Are you a menu guy or are you a build-your-own salad guy?
Nicolas [00:03:08] I would say I go through phases.
Kinsey [00:03:10] OK.
Nicolas [00:03:11] Most of the time, I live mostly in our seasonal category.
Kinsey [00:03:13] I do have to say that my crutch is a harvest bowl with kale and arugula instead of wild rice. But that's neither here nor there. [chuckles] So now that we have answered the biggest question in business [Nicolas laughs]—I'm sure this this is what everybody wants to know—we're gonna get some perspective on a wider issue, helping me answer another important question. Feels pretty pressing right now, especially in the restaurant industry. How can, and will they even, survive—restaurants both established and new—this new era of COVID-19.
Kinsey [00:03:43] How did the competitive advantages that restaurants and chains had going into this pandemic and into this economic crisis—how will those advantages insulate them from the invariable challenges that will crop up in the coming months and even in the coming years? So let's talk about where Sweetgreen has been, what it's doing today, and where it's going in the future. And before we even get into that, I want to just preface by saying that part of this conversation is going to center around tech and how Sweetgreen has been sort of devoutly focused on technology from the start.
Kinsey [00:04:14] In 2007, I believe, is when you were founded, right? So you guys have had used this tech to survive and even thrive in, like, an economic downturn in '07, '08, '09. Now we're probably heading into one. Now, I'm curious how that's going to impact your strategy moving forward. So, first and foremost, I want to understand some of the origin story of Sweetgreen. Like I said, 2007, that was a very different time [laughs] than today, obviously. But there are some parallels to be drawn in terms of an economic crisis staring us in the face. How are you drawing on that experience as we move forward today?
Nicolas [00:04:50] Thinking back to why we started Sweetgreen and when we started it 13 years ago, we started it to solve a problem—to connect people to real food and to remove friction from getting healthy fast food. And really create a whole different behavior around food. And I would say today that mission is still true and stronger than ever, so we feel fortunate that our vision and our purpose for Sweetgreen pre-COVID and post-COVID [chuckles] is the same. How that shows up and how our business evolves and how our menu evolves and how the experience of Sweetgreen evolves might radically shift, and that's some of the conversations we've been having this past month around, you know, we really want to stay very true and focused to our mission. But how that shows up and what the Sweetgreen business model looks like is going to have to evolve.
Kinsey [00:05:36] Part of why we're having this conversation is to better understand how restaurants like yours and businesses like yours are building these, quote unquote, moats. How are you insulating yourself from the extenuating factors you have no hand in controlling, like a pandemic or a recession? Let's talk more about the technology specifically. This is a huge part of what you guys do. I've talked about it on this podcast before. Not with you [laughs], but that you have been called a tech company. You've identified as a tech company. And it's often an example that I use—maybe in a slightly pejorative [laughs] way, I will admit—I see you as a salad company. I buy salads from you. How do you think you are a tech company in addition to being a salad company?
Nicolas [00:06:18] So I'm glad you see us as a food company, because we see ourselves as a food company that has been able to leverage technology in a really important and significant way to ultimately create a different experience with our customer. But we are a food company. What we sell is food. We spend so much of our time, amongst other things, is really building an incredible network of suppliers and farmers and growers to ultimately serve that to our guests and tell those stories.
Nicolas [00:06:42] But, I think for us, the use of technology is really a customer-first approach. So it's kind of this combination of art and science and really thinking about how we can build a direct relationship with our guests through our app that allows us to ultimately create better experiences for them, whether it's more customized or personalized experiences. And at the end of the day, remove friction and just make it easier to get our product.
Kinsey [00:07:04] All right. Let's talk about this Outposts as—I don't want to call it Outpost-as-a-service—but you guys are trying to play a different role than those Outposts typically would. With everything going on today, explain to me what your partnership is that we're talking about with World Central Kitchen.
Nicolas [00:07:19] So the minute this pandemic really hit the U.S. and we started to see cities shut down and offices shut down, like any restaurant business, our business started to really, you know, our revenue started to come down dramatically, and especially in neighborhoods and with our channels that are more focused on offices. So, Outpost. But quickly, we saw the need to be able to focus those efforts and all those resources on groups that needed it most. We're really thinking about those on the front lines, the medical professionals, hospitals, anyone that's really been treating so many patients and on the front line. So, we, within 48 hours, moved our whole Outpost team.
Nicolas [00:07:57] So logistics team, sales team, operations team, and pivoted them to be able to start making free salads and free meals for all of these medical workers. And so it was exciting for us to be able to use that infrastructure, that investment, and quickly pivot it. Again, we're at a point where we're taking stock of our whole business and saying, you know, what does this look like? Almost if we were to start Sweetgreen from scratch—if we were back in the dorm room as three kids—what would be the path forward? And ultimately, we stay very rooted in the mission. And that's how we quickly pivoted to be able to serve all these folks on the front line.
Nicolas [00:08:33] And as we started to do that, we actually got 12,000 incoming requests from different hospitals and hospital groups around the country asking for meals and to be served. And so we knew that the demand was really great for that, almost greater than we could do ourselves. So we decided to open it up and partner with the World Central Kitchen and allow people to donate funds in a tax-deductible way. And it's been an incredible partnership. We've been longtime fans and friends and inspired by Jose Andres and all the work he's done. And they've really been a great quarterback for this whole relief movement. And so, for us to be able to partner with them has allowed us to serve more and more of that demand.
Kinsey [00:09:15] We've certainly gotten a sense of the role that technology can play in building a restaurant, especially and helping fast casual stand out. So now let's hear from Chef JJ, who's using a different strategy to build his restaurant and its devout following. So, Chef JJ, you've worked in a ton of high-profile kitchens in New York City, including Tropico, Jane, Tribeca Grill. And you've won all sorts of accolades. Since then, you opened your own restaurant in Harlem called Fieldtrips. So tell me a little bit more about that. What's the concept behind Fieldtrip?
JJ Johnson, Chef and owner of Fieldtrip [00:09:44] Fieldtrip is a rice bowl shop. Different rices from around the world. "Field" in the name is for the rice fields. "Trip" is for the trips I've taken around the world. And "fieldtrip" invokes fun. When you come to Fieldtrip, you can go anywhere in the world through one individual ingredient, which is a rice grain. That's pretty much of what Fieldtrip is. It's a community-based restaurant. The reason why I call it a community-based restaurant is you can walk in a Fieldtrip at any time. You could be next to a police officer or a firefighter or a nurse, a doctor, your next-door neighbor or somebody you saw walking down the street. And now you're connected because of one restaurant in particular that you've been eating at. And now you guys are all future Fieldtrippers.
Kinsey [00:10:28] I'm curious how you establish this sense of community from the top down. It has to be something that you decided on as the force behind this restaurant. What, first of all, drew you to this concept of community? And second of all, how did you make sure that you built that from day one? As a newer concept, what was the strategy from the early, early days?
JJ [00:10:50] So early days were like, OK, my claim to fame is I was a chef at a place called the Cecil in Harlem, won tons of accolades. And when I was at that restaurant, I would hear people always say that, you know, I wish I could get your food more at an affordable rate so I can eat here every day.
JJ [00:11:05] So that was step one. I traveled around the world and I cooked in Ghana, Israel, Singapore, India. I'm probably missing somewhere. And when I was always in these places, rice was always at the center of the table. And rice was like, magnificent, beautiful. Nobody cared about the proteins. Everybody was fighting over this one grain at a time at a table that was probably some of the best rice I've ever had. And when I came back, I said, how can I take this ingredient and where can I put it where people understand it? And also a community that has my back? And I went with Harlem because my dad grew up in Harlem in the Bronx, I have family in Harlem.
JJ [00:11:49] And if you look at a lot of, you know, music artists or rap artists, their community has always brought them up. Jay-Z, Diddy, and any rap artist you think of, they've had their community behind them that then made them become this national or worldwide brand. And I said, if we can make it in Harlem, which I consider the greatest community in New York City, we can make it anywhere in the world—communities that look like Harlem or communities that don't look like Harlem. And I took a big risk. We raised some money, got some people to believe in me. And, in the pandemic, I've been able to touch the community more than ever.
JJ [00:12:27] But, yeah, I think when I look at communities, my dad has always told me, you know, in the small community I grew up with in Pennsylvania, that communities will always have your back through the thick and the thin.
Kinsey [00:12:38] I'm wondering here, the impact, and you brought it up, that you have focused even more on community in light of a pandemic and all these closures and new norms for the restaurant and food industries. How is that changing right now? Why do you think that that community is so much more important or that you're playing a larger role in fostering that sense of community than you had previously?
JJ [00:13:00] You know, the people that were eating at our restaurants or eating at Fieldtrip were nurses and doctors, you know, working class New Yorkers. Some of those people that were on vents or on a drip in a hospital were our customers. They meant so much to our staff that we were feeding our normal customers because we knew that they will be here when it was over for us, but we needed to be there for them now. And the simplest thing was just connecting them over a familiar bowl that they've eaten three or four times a week.
JJ [00:13:31] You know, when you're in a community like Harlem or Staten Island, the Bronx or Queens or Oakland, some people rent rooms. And they don't have the luxury of stocking up in their fridge. So they have to be able to go and eat out somewhere. So we were feeding those people. So, we look to our community to get us through this. But at the same time, we adopted every hospital in upper Manhattan, the Bronx, and Harlem because they were our community. They were people that were eating with us or needed to eat with us or lived here. And the least we can do is give them some food.
Kinsey [00:14:05] So community is obviously a huge part of your strategy and, I think, that the ethos behind Fieldtrip and what you're doing, the project in general, and that sounds really good. You know, building community and building trust and fostering this sort of intangible idea that we're in this together. We're here to help you. We're family is a huge selling point, I think, for customers. I'm curious if it's as big of a selling point for investors? Building community—does that translate when you're trying to raise money, or would it be better to say like, oh, we've got this sexy, proprietary tech product that we can white label?
JJ [00:14:40] I don't know if that's what really sold to investors at first. What sold to investors at first was low food cost, something that can be scalable, something that could look like Sweetgreen, potentially. And we didn't go into this thinking we would have 100 or 200 locations. We went into this as in one location. Now I use "we" sometimes because I have my partner, Will Sears, who's behind the scenes from an operational standpoint that helped me build this from a conceptual site, from a number standpoint. So, yeah, when I'm looking and I'm doing this stuff, it's very like the first one year of the first unit that we got money for. People were investing in me. They were investing in JJ. We know he makes good food. We'll get a New York Times review [laughs]. People will want to talk to him.
JJ [00:15:27] Then it was like, OK, are you breaking even? Are you doing this? Are you doing that? So then it turned into, hey, guys, we have an issue on our hands. I don't know if we're gonna survive this. Let's do something, right. Let's become a necessity, not a luxury. And how can we do that? And this is what it looks like. And all the investors bought in. And there wasn't one investor in the investor pool that was like, no, don't do this. They were like, OK, let me call my friend or JJ, call this hospital, or let's do this. And I think it really unified our investor pool, unified us as a brand. And I think when we go to expansion one day, we'll go to community and somebody will say, oh, I know what Fieldtrip stands for. I know who they are. They'll always be here for us.
Kinsey [00:16:11] So far, we've gotten a deeper understanding of what kinds of strategies fast casual innovators are implementing to keep themselves safe from whatever the world throws at them, pandemics included. But I'm curious about how those strategies might overlap from innovator to innovator. So now we're going to talk to Nick and Chef JJ together. But before we do that, let's take a quick break to hear from our partner. — And now back to the conversation with Chef JJ and Nicolas Jammet.
Kinsey [00:16:39] So Chef JJ, Nicolas, we have two of the brightest minds, I would say, in the culinary upstart scene in this conversation right now. So I'm curious what you think has been most front of mind for you and your peers and your cohort in the industry. Let's say there's a GroupMe or a WhatsApp group, with all of the bright minds of restaurants and fast casual. What do you think would be the most-liked message? Like, what is the conversation to be had today?
JJ [00:17:07] I would say my friends are calling me, asking me how people react when they come in to pick up their to-go orders that they placed online. What is their interaction with you? Are they waiting in a line? How do they act? Are they wearing masks?
JJ [00:17:22] Do they have on gloves? All these things that people don't really know because they're not in it right now. They're sitting from the sideline. So I have a little bit of a head start being in it and paying attention to the reaction of the people. And I think every time something changes on the hour of the hour, I feel like that's how things work right now. People react to it. So like when the Governor in New York put in the mandate of making sure everybody wore masks, now, if somebody walks in and doesn't have a mask on, in the beginning, we had to tell people to make sure they had a mask on.
JJ [00:17:55] Now people are telling people and it sometimes can get a little bit intense because some people refuse to wear a mask. They don't want to wear masks. And then for us, we have to kind of intervene and be like, OK, these aren't our laws. This is the law. So I would say, you know, right now we know we are everybody's barbershop conversation therapist.
Kinsey [00:18:21] Right. It's interesting to think about the restaurant as more than just somewhere to get food, which is something we've been talking about a lot already and we will talk more about. But, you know, that you are the enforcer of "are you wearing a mask or not?" You're a therapist. You're barbershop conversation. Nicolas, what are your thoughts on this?
Nicolas [00:18:39] Yeah, I agree with JJ. I think, you know, we've spent a lot of time trying to understand how our business is affected, how it's evolving through this. And a lot of the conversations we're having with fellow restauranteurs and groups is around, you know, is your delivery up? What changes are you making? Is your offering changing? Really thinking about not just survival mode, but how is this gonna affect the evolution of your business?
Kinsey [00:19:04] I'm curious what you wish you knew before these closures started. You know, if you could go back to February you, both of you, and tell yourself one thing, one lesson, one idea, one suggestion, what would you say?
JJ [00:19:17] I'm really looking at Domino's and Papa John's. They've been set up for this. They are successful. They have not had to change anything. And a lot of the things of what I wish I would have done, even in the opening of Fieldtrip, I'm doing now that I think has helped us with success and very much with old-school, traditional, 101 restaurant stuff as in menus in the window, answering the phone.
JJ [00:19:46] I wish I would have been doing all this before, because my staff and myself and our business model would have been set up really different than being very reactive instead of proactive. So now, it's taught me how to be very proactive in looking out. I'm looking out in our business model now. I'm not looking into tomorrow. I'm looking at September 1.
Nicolas [00:20:08] You know, I think JJ is alluding to this, but for so many of us, the places that we wanted our business to get to, we thought it was gonna be a two-, a three-, or four-year journey, it's just become like a two-, three-, four-month journey. Our business [indistinct] is how your menus evolve or how your digital percentage has gone up. You know, at Sweetgreen, our vision pre-COVID was to have a broader menu that was more digital, to really have a bigger digital channel. Overnight, we got that—that reality came to us. And again, we were building towards it, but obviously we had to shift pretty quickly.
Nicolas [00:20:39] I will say, you know, it's been pretty incredible to see the resilience of so many restaurants and chefs and JJ, I think, you know, I've been really impressed with how quickly you moved. And I think you seeing some of the decisions everyone's had to make was really amazing to see how quickly you pivoted your business model and just how fast you're making decisions. I really loved seeing that.
JJ [00:20:57] Thanks. I mean, it was our first time that I'm making the decision. I think that's why I was able to pivot. You always have all these crazy ideas in your mind. And you go to a collective group and you're waiting for somebody to sign off on the paper. This time it was really—I had this idea or had these ideas. And then the team believed in me, which was really—the nervous and reckless part was like, OK, are these people going to believe in me? Are they going to come to work every day?
JJ [00:21:21] Are they going to have their own box of gloves with their names on it so I know how many gloves they're going through? Just like these little things of systems I was putting in place into pivot, and my back was against the wall. My back is still against the wall in some ways. But yeah, I had the pivot and I appreciate all the text messages from you, Nick, because those moments or phone calls are like, hey, can you jump on the phone to talk about this? Because if you were doing it or you said, OK, that sounds cool or that sounds good, it made me feel like I was going in the right direction. So I appreciate it.
Nicolas [00:21:55] Yeah, of course.
Kinsey [00:21:56] I think it's an interesting thread to pull on here throughout this entire pandemic. And maybe this is me trying to find a silver lining again. But, in some of these industries that have been historically cumbersome and slow to adopt new technology, slow to change strategy, we've seen these changes being implemented in hyperspeed. That the changes we've been thinking about and mulling over and talking to our investors and maybe we're not ready and maybe we are ready and maybe we should do this in 2021 are now being expedited, you know, fast-forward times a million.
Kinsey [00:22:28] There are obviously drawbacks. But I think that for the most part, we can see that, you know, the decision-making, the strategizing can be done in a faster and more nimble capacity than we are used to traditionally seeing, especially in an industry like restaurants and fast casual dining.
Nicolas [00:22:45] I think it's a great point and something we've always talked about at Sweetgreen is how much we value adaptability, and we thought the world was moving quickly pre-COVID, and we always talked about how fast our customer was evolving, and during COVID, it has sped up times 100, but that having that adaptability in your DNA and just realizing that it's going to take some quick decisions and you're not going to get everything right, but really have to start testing a lot of things to understand where your business is going to evolve to.
Nicolas [00:23:14] So, as I look at our industry, so many restaurants, the new normal is going to be very different. It's not going to go back to the way it was. This is not like we're snapping out of this nor back to the way it was. And if it even does get close to that, it's gonna be a while. So, you know, I have a lot of respect for those like JJ, the restaurateurs and chefs and entrepreneurs, that are thinking quickly, acting quickly, and being smart about what they're testing and how they're thinking about the evolution of everything from menu to experience to channel growth—all that stuff.
Kinsey [00:23:42] Right. And, you know, the fact that you two are having this conversation, that these are even conversations to be had. How are we changing? What's keeping us afloat? What's going to weigh us down as we move forward in this period of—and I have vowed not to say the word unprecedented—but unprecedented uncertainty. We simply don't know what's going on and what is ahead for any of us, but especially for your industry. I think that one of the biggest factors you have in common is that both of you are focused on something more than just selling food. It's not just, can we make a rice bowl or can we make a salad that meets people's standards and that they want to come back and keep buying. It's also going all in on tech.
Kinsey [00:24:20] In your case for Sweetgreen, Chef JJ going in on the community, things like that, that are important factors in building these moats around your businesses to keep it safe. And they're not necessarily culinary moats. You can make a good product and something that people want to eat. But it's more than just that. You're creating a business and creating what hopefully is a sustainable business that can survive. And I think this kind of serves to answer the question that I posed in the beginning of this conversation.
Kinsey [00:24:46] What is a competitive edge and how did these competitive edges increase your chances of succeeding and actually making money in an industry [laughs] that is known for a healthy rate of failure for businesses in the first year? So I guess if you had to kind of boil it down to an answer that's not food, not what's on your menu, what would you say is your biggest advantage keeping you guys afloat right now or ensuring that you will be able to keep your head above water come, like you said, September 1st?
JJ [00:25:17] I mean, minus trust. I build trust in the community. I build trust with the diner. Every day we come in here, we're like, how can people trust when they're holding on or bootstrapping to their money in a working class community that they're going to spend their money with us and they're going to walk into our place. So, for me, everything is around one word. It's all around trust. And if the consumer or the diner or the guests trust us, then we're OK. The moment we start losing trust is the moment that the business will start to fail because people will then trust somebody else. And that's just been my model through this all—motto and model—that if we keep building trust, we'll be OK.
JJ [00:25:56] And it really just started. A lot of people walking into Fieldtrip now were not my customer before. They walked by us before, they were not eating with us before. I was trying to figure out how to get to them. And people would walk in and say, I have my last $20 and you guys are here. And my friend had this gumbo and they said, it's really good and everybody's really friendly. I'm gonna try it. And next thing you know, they turned into our weekly, maybe once a week, customer, but they filled the void and a gap for something we didn't have before. And then the next thing, it was, OK, do people trust walking into Popeyes and seeing the fried chicken out in that window space?
JJ [00:26:36] No, they're losing trust in them because that's an old model. The food is exposed. So we started to gain traction from a Popeyes diner, which was our main competitor around the street, because people were trusting us. They realized we had crispy chicken and they were seeing crispy chicken get freshly fried and then right into their bowl and then right to them. So again, everything was around trust. And you'll see that a lot with a lot of other big brands and big commercials around that. You're seeing them and they're using trust to make sure they're keeping a diner or getting a new diner or guest.
Nicolas [00:27:09] Yeah.
Kinsey [00:27:09] Yeah.
Nicolas [00:27:10] I think that adaptability and being nimble, I think is strength in a moat that you're seeing those that are surviving this really lead into. And then again, just to add to what JJ said, I think that trust is one of the most important things you can do. And I really believe that in this time, that customers and the world will remember how brands showed up during the crisis. And more than ever, that, you know, they might become a customer now, but come September, come 2021, I really do think that sense of community is going to be stronger than ever. And customers will remember which brands showed up and why and how they showed up. And I think that's actually going to be a really strong connection.
Kinsey [00:27:46] Yeah. And these are both such intangible concepts, right? You know, you can see the fried chicken in front of you, like you're saying, and know that it looks good or looks bad, but to build trust is a really nebulous concept. It doesn't happen overnight. It isn't built overnight, but it can be broken overnight for some specific customers. And not to point fingers [laughs] here, but we've seen that happen in the space before. Chipotle got people sick, people stopped going. The business tanked. They've built it back up. But it's, like I said, not something that happens overnight. How do you manage the expectations when it comes to trust from the business perspective, not just from giving people food that they can trust won't make them sick or will nourish them?
JJ [00:28:25] I mean, for me here, Fieldtrip is about transparency. We're being very transparent. We're gonna keep being transparent as much as we can be, I call ourselves the little big giant, and just letting people know what we're doing, how we're doing it, and the little things, right, like maybe tamper tape on our bags or over our bowls. This wasn't touched, you know, how sturdy is a staple? Anybody can pop a staple out. So those little things will matter now.
JJ [00:28:54] They might reflect in price, which is sad to say, but I think people will pay the extra 25 or 50 cents to ensure that we're doing things the right way. And then just talking to our guests when they come in, like knowing that there's a five-person minimum and when they see that sixth person come in, that we're asking some people to stand outside. Posters up on the wall.
JJ [00:29:15] Those little old-school messaging that we strayed away from are now back because, for me, I know they worked, and they're working for us in our community. And then also the people seeing how we treat our employees, what they're wearing, how they're wearing it, how clean they look. I mean, Fieldtrip is a very open kitchen from the street. Soon as you walk in, all these little things matter, to wiping off countertops and sweeping floors.
JJ [00:29:45] It sounds silly if you're sitting at home, but it builds up. It makes you feel like you want to come to this place. Again, Chipotle had to put those commercials on freshly made guacamole and all those things to try to regain trust. They have it now. But I'm not trying to be in that boat at all, ever.
Nicolas [00:30:03] I think your point around trust is so right. And, you know, we say at Sweetgreen that trust is earned in drops and locked in buckets. So you can fill your bucket up one drop at a time, but that bucket can tip over in a moment. And so, like JJ said, it's in all these moments, every single day. And in times like this, when you are adapting and moving fast, you're not going to get everything right. And that's OK. But just being honest and transparent with the customers and guests and making sure they understand the decisions we're making and why is really important, and I would say more important than ever. So, it's just about making sure you continue to maintain that trust with the customer.
Kinsey [00:30:38] And I want to talk about fast casuals' super-fast growth and the role that it plays in our restaurant ecosystem in just a minute. But first, let's take a short break to hear from our sponsor. — And now back to the conversation with Nicolas Jammet and Chef JJ Johnson. So I was reading a Washington Post piece before this interview talking about how of all of the food trends in the decade from 2010 to 2020, that fast casual is probably the largest, most impactful trend. Avocado toast [laughs]—it's fun to write about and make jokes about on this podcast, but when it comes to the actual business implications, fast casual was far and away the most impactful change that the restaurant and food industry overall experienced in the last decade.
Kinsey [00:31:17] So, my question for you is, is it enough for all of the new players trying to capitalize on that giant massive trend to just sell good food? Do they have to bring something else to the table? In your cases, you're talking community and trust in technology.
JJ [00:31:31] I got to jump in here real quick because, you know, all the fast casuals that we're talking about, that are big, have multi-units, all have delicious food. Sweetgreen has delicious salads. Right. That's why people go back every day. Yes, they have amazing tech, great branding, all those things. But at the end of the day it's like, oh, my God, this salad is fresh and crispy and the dressing is [indistinct]. That's what makes the great fast casual great and every other fast casual, mediocre. And at the end of the day, you know, when I'm looking at Fieldtrip, I'm taking rice and say, well, what other places have rice that are fast casuals and how much do they charge for their rice? And is it delicious?
JJ [00:32:14] So if we think about it, there's a Popeyes has $2.99 red beans and rice. It's really good. Are they known for that dish? No. But, if they're my direct competitor and somebody is coming in to me, they're like, well, hey, I can go get rice and beans down the street for $2.99. Why would I pay $9.99 with you? My rice bowl has to be better than anything else that anybody else has tasted in that category.
JJ [00:32:40] And then yes, everything else makes the experience so much better, that we say, see you next trip or welcome to Fieldtrip, and Kiera remembers your name and what you ordered the last time. All those things are great. But deliciousness is the key. And I think that's why the fast casual market got oversaturated, because people were so like, oh, my fast casual is branded amazing. Fieldtrip has no branding. It's a brick wall with cement floors, some nice wood, a very small kitchen, a neon sign, and was like, if this can work here, then we'll see what it looks like to build it out. And I think if you look back at every big, fast casual that's big now, their first location was not a beautiful, marketable location.
Kinsey [00:33:25] Now, a lot of what we've talked about, the three of us here, centers around these shifts that are inevitable, but all focused on the core product itself. That has to be what's driving your success and even what's driving your failure. As we look to the future beyond just this specific moment in time with forced closures, with a pandemic—when we think beyond that, how does the fast casual industry look to the two of you? What are your expectations for changes? For things that stay the same? For who wins? Who loses? What have you?
Nicolas [00:33:57] Yeah, I mean, it's tough. Again, [JJ laughs] it's a lot of uncertainty ahead. What I do know is that pretty much every business in food is impacted in some way, in a significant way. So it's going to be sad to see that likely some won't survive, which I think is gonna be really unfortunate.
Nicolas [00:34:14] And ultimately, so many more of the ones that do survive are going to have to evolve and adapt their business model. And some will come out stronger, and it's really hard to predict what the landscape will look like next year. What I do know is that customers need to eat and customers are going to want to connect with great brands and great products more than ever. And so I think the name of the game for so many restaurants and chains today is, is survival, cash preservation, and adapting as much as you can to see the other side of this.
JJ [00:34:44] Yeah. I mean, I have to agree with you 100%. I mean, the industry is going to look very different. And I think starting in two weeks, the industry is going to look different because people are gonna be doing things that nobody thought they would ever do with their restaurants, big groups, small groups. One of my buddies who has a big restaurant group in Boston is saying that he might hold off for six months before he opens up his six restaurants, just to see how people will come back. I think fast casuals will be in it.
JJ [00:35:12] And just for us, it's sad because we've been a luxury for a really long time. And I think myself and Nick have been able to figure out how to become a necessity. And that's what's been able to keep us going in this pandemic, and I think will keep us going in the future as we will not look at our restaurant as a luxury anymore. Well, I know I won't. I'll be looking at is a necessity in every community that we're in.
Kinsey [00:35:38] Yeah. You bring up an interesting point too, that it's not just when [indistinct] as the business leader is ready to get back to what we would consider normal. It's when are the people who are walking through doors ready to get back to normal? Maybe you have a little bit more of a quicker ramp when you're in the fast casual space just because we're not sitting, [laughs] especially New York. You know, you can hear everybody's conversation when you're in a fine dining restaurant. It's gonna take some time for people to re-establish those habits that we've gotten so used to. You know, I have been quarantining not in New York for, what, two months now, over two months now. And I've fallen out of my habit of going to Sweetgreen, of trying out new places, of trying anything, really. [laughs]
Kinsey [00:36:20] And those all have to be re-established. So I guess the name of the game with all of this is wait and see. But I have a lot more insight now as to what that future that we are waiting to see looks like after having talked to the two of you. So thank you so much for taking the time. And I know you guys are stretched thin right now, especially with everything going on. So I do appreciate it.
Nicolas [00:36:40] Well, thanks for having me.
JJ [00:36:41] Thank you.
Kinsey [00:36:49] Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Business Casual. Now, like I said at the top of the episode, this was the second part of a two-part series on the restaurant and food industries and how they're coping with COVID-19. If you're a longtime listener, you know that this was something that was kind of new for me as the host of Business Casual. We tried out a new format here with a couple of different interviews pulled together in a pretty different way. So I want to know what you think—any and all feedback is welcome. Good. Bad. In between. Let me know by emailing me at Kinsey@morningbrew.com. That's k i n s e y @morningbrew.com. And let me know your thoughts. I'll see you next time. [sound of a ding]