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By JONATHAN ELBAZ
WASHINGTON -- In April 2010, a small Washington, D.C., restaurant chain staged a concert for 700 people in front of its Dupont Circle location. On Saturday, the same chain expects to stuff the mighty Merriweather Post Pavilion with 20,000 strong.
The fourth annual Sweetlife Festival, run by restaurant chain Sweetgreen, will take over the Columbia venue for the third straight year. The stacked lineup of lively, trendy musicians — with this year’s crop yielding Phoenix, Passion Pit, Kendrick Lamar and many more — will play alongside dozens of farmers and food producers selling healthy, organic foods.
Through key industry connections and the exploitation of an unfilled niche in the region’s live music scene, Sweetgreen has transformed its backyard concert into a juggernaut of an event.
Sweetlife is now one of highest-profile music festivals in the Mid-Atlantic. It’s not everyday that a salad chain can fill an amphitheater.
Sweetgreen opened in 2007 on M St. in northwest Washington, after its founders — three Georgetown business students — pined for better food options around campus. The store boasted a menu of organic salads and blended a warm wood-paneled aesthetic with the expediency of a Chipotle-style food joint.
“We feel the best moments of your life can be the healthiest moments of your life,” said Sweetgreen co-founder Nic Jammet.
Shortly after opening the first shop, the founders decided to blast tunes through the outdoor speakers and heaved a cheap amplifier inside to spin some Daft Punk. The high-octane beats were a little too raucous for the business lunch crowd, but some customers vibed to the lower-energy indie and alternative rock tunes.
There was real synergy between the fresh food Sweetgreen sold and the hip music it played. After staging in-store sets from Thievery Corporation, Toro Y Moi, Walk the Moon and other young musicians, the founders realized that with the right selection of music they could push the Sweetgreen brand beyond food.
They planned a modest event for April 2010 — dubbed the Sweetlife Festival — that was tucked in the tight, urban neighborhood next to Sweetgreen’s new Dupont Circle location. It featured a DJ set from Hot Chip and performances from U.S. Royalty, The Love Language and other small bands. Neman said they were expecting just a few hundred attendees, but sold more than 700 tickets.
Around the same time, the founders hooked up with Jon Cohen, the co-CEO of Cornerstone Promotion. Cohen’s company had worked on marketing campaigns for Nike, Converse and Mountain Dew and wanted to help Sweetgreen build its brand even further.
“We fell in love with their business,” Cohen said. “What they do is amazing. We started advising, saying, ‘Here’s what we think of your business,’ and from there we learned about music and the festival.”
Despite the humble expectations of the first event, the founders saw they could strike gold if they developed the idea a little bit. They wanted to bring Sweetlife back bigger and better the next year, which would require months of careful planning and positioning.
Cohen helped. He had vital connections within the Washington concert scene, specifically to the local legend Seth Hurwitz, whose I.M.P. promotion company is an institution in the area. Hurwitz co-owns the 9:30 Club in Washington and promotes shows at many of the region’s most prominent venues.
The biggest challenge the founders faced in staging the second festival was choosing a moderately-sized venue to host a still relatively obscure event. Hurwitz decided to blow the roof off.
“We were considering other venues,” Jammet said. “But then we were sitting with Seth just above our Bethesda location. He looked up and said, ‘Why are we even talking about this? I know of a pretty good venue… called Merriweather Post.’”
The Columbia amphitheater is spread across 40 acres of land, anchored by a massive pavilion at the bottom of a hill. It’s is one of the largest live music spaces in the area and hosts dozens of concerts yearly, along with Virgin FreeFest, which Hurwitz runs.
The wide-open space was theoretically perfect for a festival like Sweetlife that combines music with organic food. But Jammet said they weren’t convinced they could run a huge festival.
With the move into Merriweather, the simplicity of organizing the first Sweetlife festival was replaced with a dense, logistical jungle. Planning the event took almost a year of wheeling and dealing. Sweetgreen brought in festival producer Laura Rankin to book sponsorships, plan social media campaigns, and parlay with the dozens of artists, food producers, operations staff and hundreds of volunteers.
The founders plopped down a extensive wish list of the musicians they wanted to perform. Hurwitz and Cohen started negotiating. The two went back and forth with The Strokes for months, before the band signed on to headline.
Finally on May Day 2010, the reshaped Sweetlife Festival arrived. Behind the strength of the music lineup, which also included Girl Talk, Lupe Fiasco and Crystal Castles, the event drew around 15,000 — an exponential jump from the casual affair in Washington the year before.
Merriweather was cluttered with people buying food, listening to music and fooling around. Rolling Stone streamed the music performances live on its website, and thousands of tweets were sent out with fans’ gleeful messages. Though scattered rain storms washed away some of the smiles later in the afternoon, the founders pegged the event as a huge success.
Rankin and her team took just two months off before going back to the drawing board in August to deliver again the following spring.
In 2012, the festival blossomed even further. The lineup included bigger names like Avicii, Kid Cudi and the Shins, and a second stage was added for even more music. The company said they sold around 17,000 tickets. Sweetlife was becoming a mainstay.
The restaurant chain was growing right along with its pet project. Partly utilizing the immense buzz from the festival, Sweetgreen expanded into neighboring states. Shops popped up in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, and new stores are close to opening in New York City and Boston.
The success of Sweetlife may have spurred some close competition in the region. In 2012, Red Frog Events launched the Firefly Festival in Dover, Del., gathering the same types of trendy artists that would usually appear at Sweetlife.
But it’s clear that Sweetlife fills a niche that its competitors do not. Rather than the humid, summer festival, it always takes place in spring. Unlike the often dirty and smelly weekend camping festivals, it’s an easy and accessible one-day excursion to a clean amphitheater. And most significantly, it places an equal emphasis on food and music, which fans rarely encounter at similar events.
This weekend’s Sweetlife looks to be the biggest yet. Sweetgreen claims it’s close to selling 20,000 tickets, and the lineup announcement prompted major media coverage from national music publications like Rolling Stone, SPIN, and Pitchfork.
On Saturday, music fans will stroll through the sprawling green acres of Merriweather and find food trucks selling organic hot dogs, giant heart-shaped walls splattered with painted designs, and oodles of people playing with streamers, hula-hoops and each other. Down the hill, bands will blast loud, energetic music out of the pavilion to thousands of teens and twenty-somethings. It will be packed.
Rankin said she’s been considering ways to continue to grow the festival. The most likely jump would be extending the festival to two days, Rankin said. But they have not ruled out a multi-day festival with camping.
After the thousands of festivalgoers clear out of the Merriweather Post parking lot Saturday, Rankin will take a month of vacation to decompress. Later this summer, she’ll start planning Sweetlife 2014.