The conscious capitalists at Sweetgreen are addressing wage inequality in their own ranks

The conscious capitalists at Sweetgreen are addressing wage inequality in their own ranks
Image: Henri Campeã for Quartz
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The archetypical Sweetgreen customer is a young, well-educated, urban professional, the kind of person who can not only afford to spring for a $14 salad with steelhead trout and summer squash, but also wants to know that it’s been ethically sourced; the kind of person who would work in a strategy or marketing role at Sweetgreen if they didn’t already have another job as an architect, a software engineer, a consultant, or a novelist; the kind of person who would start Sweetgreen, or at least think about starting Sweetgreen, if it didn’t already exist.

This is also the kind of person who may spend time thinking about things like income inequality, and who might, while standing in line for a salad during the lunchtime rush, think about the differences between the white-collar workers who have plotted Sweetgreen’s expansion since its founding in 2007, and the shift workers behind the counter preparing salads for customers of the chain’s 100 mainly coastal US locations.

Sweetgreen’s executive team, it turns out, has noticed these discrepancies, too.

In an era in which many restaurant companies are under close scrutiny for their treatment of employees, Sweetgreen, a brand widely associated with health, wellness, and sustainability, appears to be attuned to the notion that its reputation depends on extending ethical considerations not just to salads themselves, but to the people who make them. In May, the company, which is valued at $1.6 billion, announced that its restaurant and corporate employees will receive five months of paid parental leave—generous for any US corporate policy, and nearly unheard of for hourly workers in the world of fast-casual and fast-food chains.

In a recent interview with Quartz, Sweetgreen co-founder Nathaniel Ru discussed another unusual initiative at the company: the Family Fund, a program in which white-collar workers at the company’s Culver City, California, headquarters can choose to donate a portion of their paychecks to a pool that gives more than 3,000 restaurant workers at Sweetgreen access to emergency funds.

The fund provides financial support in times of need, whether due to a natural disaster, a family crisis, or another life-altering event. Requests for funding are reviewed by a committee of four employees, Ru says.

Sweetgreen’s front-line workers have accessed the funds for everything from temporary housing after an apartment fire to flights across the country to see a sick family member or attend a funeral. While there’s no suggested amount for corporate workers to deduct from their paychecks, Ru says there is a “relatively high contribution rate.” (He declined to share specific numbers.) The contributions are tax-deductible.

“It was really an emphasis on trying to better take care of people, especially our team members in restaurants,” says Sweetgreen co-CEO and co-founder Nathaniel Ru.
“It was really an emphasis on trying to better take care of people, especially our team members in restaurants,” says Sweetgreen co-CEO and co-founder Nathaniel Ru.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder

The Family Fund has been around for almost three years, taking its initial inspiration from an incident in which an assistant manager at a Sweetgreen restaurant in Washington DC had an emergency surgery. Her co-workers took up a fundraising effort to help her cover the medical bills, and the corporate office agreed to match the donations. That gave Sweetgreen’s higher-ups an idea: Why not give white-collar workers the chance to kick in regularly? “It was really an emphasis on trying to better take care of people, especially our team members in restaurants,” Ru says.

The Family Fund certainly sounds well-intentioned. But it’s easy to imagine people critiquing the program as a symptom of the problems with wealth inequality in the US. If Sweetgreen’s working-class employees don’t make enough money to save for emergencies, some might argue that the company should reevaluate its pay structure rather than asking its white-collar workers to make up the difference. (The average restaurant worker at Sweetgreen earns between $13 and $15 per hour, according to data collected by the job-postings website Indeed.)

Asked about this, Ru avoids discussion of the broader issue of wage inequality, instead emphasizing that the fund is meant to foster a relationship between the corporate office (known to employees as “the treehouse”) and people working in Sweetgreen salad shops. “I think the goal for us was just a conversation between the employees and team members we have in both the treehouse and the stores,” Ru says. “Our mission at Sweetgreen is to make an impact, and we feel like this program does that.”

But there is a question as to whether employees are sufficiently aware of the resources available to them. While Ru says the company promotes the Family Fund through both its intranet and team meetings, Sweetgreen workers (including the manager) at one New York City location told me they hadn’t heard of the Family Fund—although the manager noted he was relatively new, having started just a few months ago.

A microcosm of modern capitalism

In a way, the Family Fund is a microcosm of the tensions that companies like Sweetgreen are navigating in a capitalist system newly awakened to its weaknesses.

Sweetgreen explicitly promotes a social mission of “democratizing real food,” and it has taken numerous steps to demonstrate its commitment to social responsibility, from pledging $1 million to help bring more nutritious food to American school cafeterias to using sustainably farmed ingredients. But it’s very difficult—perhaps even impossible—to be 100% ethical in most areas, given that individuals and corporations don’t exist in a bubble, but are inevitably enmeshed with broader structural issues. For example, Sweetgreen offers compostable bowls, but a New York Times article points out that the containers nonetheless largely wind up in landfills because most workers take the bowls back to their offices and simply throw them out with the regular trash.

But Sweetgreen also has been willing to adjust its practices in the face of criticism. It recently rolled back its no-cash policy after it came under fire for excluding potential customers without access to credit or debit cards. Ru says the cashless policy was initially designed to make Sweetgreen stores safer after a string of robberies, but the company “realized it wasn’t the right solution and wanted to make sure everyone has access to real food.”

Prioritizing ethics—for Sweetgreen, or for any company—means being aware that structural inequalities can be addressed by policies, but also understanding that even well-meant policies have the potential to reinforce the inequalities among us.