The Elon Musk of the Restaurant Business

By Paul Barron, CEO/Founder of DigitalCoCo, Foodable WebTV & the Restaurant Social Media Index

I met him on a cold, wintery day in D.C. while on a shoot for our show Fast Casual Nation. He had an unpretentious swagger and calmness about him that gave me a feeling that what I was about to see would be something very special. Sometimes people like this are just full of themselves, but I had a feeling this would be different.

For those of you who don’t know Elon Musk, I am happy to introduce you to the restaurant version of him. The brand and the mission are similar to Musk in his over-the-top ideation of Tesla Motors and the idea of something as crazy as the Hyperloop. I may be talking Greek to some of you operators, but after you read this, the reality of what it takes to be a next generation disruptor in the restaurant business will be very evident.

Qualities of a Next Era Restaurateur

Foodable WebTV Network

Foodable WebTV Network

They have always said I am unemployable for a reason. I’m a guy that wont accept the status quo and will challenge even the best to be better — that is one characteristic that someone like Nic Jammet of Sweetgreen — the upstart fast casual brand in the Capital City — has. He is unemployable, not because he is an A-hole and wants things his way, but instead because he and his team refuse to accept the restaurant industry as it is. So much so, that he put his Georgetown education and life savings on the line to challenge it to the very core of what it means to build the next era restaurant brand.

A Vanguard of Healthy Lifestyle Brands

Healthy eating has been emerging as one of the new leaders in consumer sentiment over the past year, but the recent shift of massive amounts of Millennials hitting this market segment over the past six months is astounding. With more than 29 million super users of the restaurant business in this demographic as of January 1, 2014, and expected to top 50 million by Jan 1, 2015, this is serious foresight. Wayne Gretzky always stated you have to skate to where the puck will be, not to where it is — a simple yet hard thing to do. Going where others are not and putting a flag in the ground can sometimes be a very lonely place. I have been there with the launch of FastCasual.com in the mid ’90s – for years it was crickets on the website, I tell you.

Sweetgreen has done something amazing with the growth of Sweetlife Festival, the evolution of the healthy powerhouse that is moving up and down the Eastern seaboard with expansion in Manhattan and beyond. Sweetlife is an annual explosion of lifestyle, music and food that draws thousands, including many of the entertainment industry’s top performing acts. You have to think about this for a moment: the Sweetgreen team began Sweetlife far before Chipotle — the giant killer of Wall Street — started their version of a lifestyle festival with Cultivate.

Credit: Sweetgreen | Foodable WebTV Network

Credit: Sweetgreen | Foodable WebTV Network

Be Disruptive!

Disruption simply means doing something different in an established market, space or product. Add in savvy marketing, on-spot branding, and an understanding of today’s restaurant consumer, and you can see that the Sweetgreen team and Nic Jammet have become the Disrupters of the restaurant business. Are we far from seeing the brand streak across the nation with a sprig of kale and an elegant design that looks a bit like Ikea? The disruption is in play, and the consumers will be the end game when it comes to who will be the next power player in the restaurant business.

Disruptor DNA

I had the privilege of seeing this very phenomenon occur once before, when an upstart Fresh Mex Chain looked as though they were about to take the burrito business by storm. With a scrappy and disruptive mentality, Steve Ells decided it would be Chipotle that would take the burrito crown and not Baja Fresh. I thought long and hard on the idea of who the Elon Musk or Tony Stark of the restaurant business is. Yes, Steve’s name was at the top of the heap, and yes, his continued disruption of the industry should be viewed as a roadmap for restaurant startups. But there is something about Nic Jammet that you can’t quite put a finger on — his calmness and confidence, without being cocky, is what lures you to him. Though I would love to see his Pepper Potts push him around, I feel that he and his team’s calculated moves over the past few years and the years to come will be subject of case studies and professors at Cornell Hospitality in the not-too-distant future.

 It takes vision, guts, and little bit of crazy to be a disruptor in this business. We are set to have a whole new fleet of Elon Musks, Tony Starks and Nic Jammets descending on what will be the restaurant business of the future. Prepare yourself — things are about to get very interesting.