Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza… Sweetlife?
The latter may lack the cred of other popular music festivals, but that hardly mattered to the 15,000 or so fans who rocked out to the Strokes, Lupe Fiasco, Crystal Castles, the Cold War Kids, and six more acts at the Sweetlife Festival in May in Maryland.
The concert was the brainchild of Sweetgreen, a Washington, D.C.-based restaurant chain; it's also the centerpiece of the company's marketing efforts. Founded in 2007 by college friends Nicolas Jammet, Jonathan Neman, and Nathaniel Ru, all 26, Sweetgreen aims to offer an organic, locally sourced, and inexpensive alternative to the usual fast-food joints. It has 10 locations (eight in the D.C. area and two in Philadelphia), 250 employees, and annual revenue of about $15 million.
Music has been front and center for the chain since its earliest days, when the struggling founders boosted traffic by setting up a DJ booth on the sidewalk outside its first shop, in D.C.'s Dupont Circle neighborhood. The company also has its own Pandora station and considers Coachella a company holiday. In 2009, it held its first live-music event—a mini block party in the store's parking lot—with local indie rock bands.
The block party helped bump sales 20 percent over the previous year, so in 2010, Sweetgreen blew it out with the first Sweetlife Festival. The trio persuaded the popular electronic act Hot Chip—n town for a show at Washington's 9:30 Club—to play the restaurant's parking lot that afternoon. The event cost about $50,000 to stage and left the company about $15,000 in the red. But the owners deemed it a success: Nearly 1,000 people showed up, and the event generated plenty of buzz, including a mention in Spin.
They were determined that the 2011 show be bigger—way bigger. Rather than doing it themselves, they partnered with IMP, which operates a number of concert venues in the area, including the famed Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland. Designed by Frank Gehry, the 17,000-capacity venue sits on 40 wooded acres and has hosted artists such as the Who, Led Zeppelin, and Green Day. The pavilion had an opening on May 1, an IMP rep told them. Why not hold the festival there?
The date nailed down, they now had about three months to attend to the countless other details. With such a large venue, a big-time headliner was essential. The Strokes, touring on the release of their first new record in five years, were available, the three learned. It took about a month of back-and-forth, but the group agreed to play. With the Strokes on board, Sweetgreen was able to line up sponsorships, of $5,000 to $50,000, from companies such as Applegate Farms, Yards Brewing, and Honest Tea. The headliner also helped attract acts such as mashup DJ Girl Talk and rapper Theophilus London. To spread the word, the company hung large graphic displays in its stores, created a website about the event, posted banner ads on its homepage, and purchased ads on Facebook. IMP's marketing people handled radio-station plugs, ticket giveaways, and advertising on the websites of its D.C. venues.
Sweetgreen was as choosy about the concessions as about the performers. Jammet battled with Charm City Hospitality, which runs food services at Merriweather, over whether the beer-swilling crowd would go for healthier snacks and whether nachos should be on the menu. Sweetgreen won the nacho battle, but it couldn't eliminate junk food altogether. Still, it pushed for healthier ingredients.
Finally, it was May 1. The doors opened at noon, and the Sweetgreen founders were all over the place—mingling with the growing crowd, filming webcasts with band members, hanging out backstage. At one point, they took in the view from the pavilion roof, astonished at how smoothly everything was going. "It felt more like a Sweetgreen event than a Merriweather show," says Zach Goodwin, guitarist for opening act Modern Man. "Their food was everywhere, but more than that, there was a homegrown, hand-built vibe." Speaking of the food, Sweetgreen's instincts were right on: The organic greens and the quinoa cups with roasted asparagus sold out. "We proved that just because people are drinking in the sun all day, it doesn't mean they'll only eat pizza," says Ru. The salad stand was so popular, Sweetgreen was asked by Charm City to do another one a few weeks later at a Katy Perry concert.
It's easy to see how getting thousands of music fans, mostly ages 14 to 35, out in the fresh air digging 10 bands brings a company good vibrations. Quantifying actual return on investment is trickier. The bill for the festival came to more than $500,000. Tickets were priced at $55. After donating a percentage of the door to the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation and D.C. Farm to School Network, the company broke even. The company did double its social-media following, and restaurant sales increased slightly. Still, "there's not a tangible ROI," says Ru. "But we were able to educate people about eating local, healthy food—and get them talking about Sweetgreen." More important, perhaps, the company rewarded concertgoers with some fine memories—such as the moment when Girl Talk closed his set with John Lennon's "Imagine," as a storm of multihued balloons rained down on the audience.
The festival is a big step toward the founders' ultimate goal of extending the Sweetlife brand to music, travel, and fashion. And the lack of solid financial results hasn't slowed down the planning for next year's event, which will be even more focused on the healthy grub. For 2012, the group is aiming for 100 percent control to bring in food trucks, celebrity chefs, and more local farmers. Down the road, the owners' collective rock-'n'-roll fantasy is that Sweetlife becomes the East Coast Coachella.