- Sweetgreen has been a digital innovator since it was founded in 2007.
- The restaurant unicorn, valued at $1.8 billion, confidentially filed its IPO paperwork on June 21.
- Former Starbucks tech executive Wouleta Ayele will help the chain scale its operations nationally.
Long before the pandemic forced restaurants to think about their digital game plan, restaurant unicorn Sweetgreen billed itself as a tech company aspiring to be “the Starbucks of salads.”
The made-to-order salad chain has led digital innovation in the fast-casual category for years. Now, it is looking to go bigger on tech to scale nationally ahead of its IPO.
But to achieve those goals, the chain knows it must hire big as well.
Earlier this month, Sweetgreen, which confidentially filed its IPO paperwork on June 21, named former Starbucks tech executive Wouleta Ayele as its new chief technology officer. She started her new role on August 17.
A week into her new position, the company announced it had acquired robotic-restaurant chain Spyce on Tuesday.
As senior vice president of technology services at Starbucks, Ayele helped bring the coffee giant’s pioneering app and loyalty program to the masses. Her game plan for California-based Sweetgreen, valued at nearly $1.8 billion, is to turn the brand into a powerhouse chain with digital capabilities that match her former employer and fellow industry leader Domino’s.
“They’ve done an amazing job building their digital ecosystem,” Ayele said of Sweetgreen in an exclusive interview with Insider. “I’m hoping we can leverage that to the next level.”
At Sweetgreen, she will be responsible for supply chain efficiencies, advanced restaurant operations, and developing the company’s digital platforms, including its mobile app. She’ll also oversee the hiring of new talent to the chain, Sweetgreen said.
Ayele, who has also worked for the Coca-Cola Company and Hyundai in her career, said she’s thrilled to be part of a chain that is at “the intersection of food and tech.”
Jonathan Neman, Sweetgreen’s CEO and cofounder, said in a statement: “As we continue to scale and think about what the future of fast food will look like, the technology powering Sweetgreen plays an integral part in creating efficiencies and providing our guests with the best experience possible.”
Ayele, he added, “has the experience, savviness, and leadership to help us make that vision a reality.”
As the company prepares for an IPO, Ayele’s role will be to stitch together the company’s digital ecosystem using her vast knowledge of data and supply chain analytics, she told Insider. That will include Sweetgreen’s app and website, according to a company spokesperson.
In 2020, researcher Technomic estimates that sales at the 133-unit chain reached $189 million, up 2.3% from the year prior. The company has also raised $671 million as of June 2021, according to PitchBook. Sweetgreen declined to provide current sales figures to Insider.
Half of Sweetgreen’s transactions came from digital orders prior to the start of the pandemic. Digital sales have since grown more than 70%, as more people work remotely, according to a CNBC report.
The company’s focus on off-premise orders has fueled its growth over the years. Sweetgreen incorporated contactless pick-up shelves in stores well before these design features became a pandemic-fueled necessity. The chain also secured a large lunch following through its Outpost program, where stores delivered meals to corporate offices that signed up.
But that program, and the chain’s reliance on city-centric foot traffic, hurt the brand when workforces fled to the suburbs during last year’s lockdowns. The chain was forced to cut 20% of its corporate staff in October 2020.
How Outpost will play out in an ongoing remote work atmosphere is unclear. Ayele was hesitant to discuss the program details because she hasn’t started at the chain yet.
But she did say Outpost plays an important role in Sweetgreen’s mission of “connecting people to real food.”
“Sweetgreen is leading the way with Outpost,” she said. “All those capabilities we will continue to build on the foundation that Sweetgreen already has.”