It may no longer serve hamburgers, but the Oscar’s building on Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue will retain its retro image when it opens in spring 2016. That’s because the new tenant, Washington D.C.-based Sweetgreen, is keeping the building’s signature arches, as well as its distinctive signage, even though it is transforming the space from a burger joint to a healthy, vegetable-focused fast-casual restaurant.
“We want to keep Oscar’s history alive,” Sweetgreen co-founder Nicolas Jammet told Nosh in a sit-down interview Tuesday. “It was an incredible business to last for over 60 years.”
But, Jammet said, Oscar’s represented the tail-end of a different era of dining. “It’s exciting to see a new chapter for the space.”
It’s not the first time that Sweetgreen has shown an appreciation for old-style dining establishments. Jammet and co-founders Nathaniel Ru and Jonathan Neman opened their first restaurant in 2007 in a small stand-alone hamburger joint in D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. The three entrepreneurs kept the design of the building intact, only adding a fresh coat of paint and an upgraded kitchen.
They will follow the same pattern in Berkeley. Although Ru said the interior of the Oscar’s building needs quite a bit of work: future Sweetgreen customers can expect a sleek, streamlined dining room with plenty of fresh produce on display.
Sweetgreen serves a primarily vegan and vegetarian selection of salads and grain bowls, using ingredients that change five times a year to reflect changing seasons. Each location has a slightly different menu, and the Berkeley spot will have its own special items.
The menu has a section dedicated to strictly seasonal items, plus regular dishes like the Rad Thai salad (organic arugula, organic mesclun, sprouts, carrots, shredded cabbage, spicy sunflower seeds, cucumbers, basil, citrus shrimp and spicy cashew dressing) and Wild Child grain bowl (organic wild rice, organic baby spinach, cilantro, peppers, raw beets, shredded cabbage, carrots, raw seeds, avocado and miso sesame ginger dressing). Diners can also build their own bowls, to which they can add protein like roasted chicken and hard-boiled eggs.
Occasionally, Sweetgreen will partner with local chefs to design menu items. Currently, the West Coast menu features a salad designed by Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who own several LA restaurants, including Animal and Trois Mec. For the dish, a chopped romaine base is decked out with parsley, mint, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, beets, roasted chicken and the clinchers — za’atar pita chips and a creamy sumac dressing.
Neman said that they would like to partner with Bay Area chefs, but that these relationships tend to grow organically. They do not, as yet, have any partnerships in mind.
Jammet, Neman and Ru scouted locations in the Bay Area for close to three years before deciding that Berkeley was the ideal place to launch the company’s Northern California expansion. It will be the fourth California location for the company; its three other West Coast locations are in the Los Angeles area.
“We couldn’t think of a better place to launch,” said Jammet. “Here in Berkeley, people really care about what they’re eating, and we’re very excited to connect on that level.” This expansion has been funded using its recent investment from, among others, New York restaurateurs Daniel Boulud, David Chang and Danny Meyer. Sweetgreen raised $35 million in its last round of funding, bringing its total to $95 million.
During their scouting process, the Sweetgreen team focused not only on finding a location, but also on building relationships. The trio even reached out to Alice Waters for a go-ahead. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, she gave them a thumbs-up.)
“We spend a lot of time getting to know the community to see how we will fit in,” said Ru.
As befits the company’s community-minded ethos, each Sweetgreen location has its own personality, from the design to the ingredients. Sweetgreen sources seasonal, local products in each of its restaurant’s regions. Jammet said they’re still working out from where they’ll source for the Berkeley location; they do, however, know that they will be serving the Edible Schoolyard loaf from Acme Bread.
The company also looks to get involved with its neighborhood through its “Sweetgreen in Schools” partnership, a “homegrown program that educates kids about healthy eating, fitness and sustainability through fun, hands-on activities,” according to the Sweetgreen website. The program began in D.C. in 2010 as a one-week curriculum and has morphed into a series of workshops involving more than 1,000 students in fourth, fifth and sixth grades.
“The initial program had such an impact that we really wanted to make it grow,” said Jammet. Today, Sweetgreen launches a school partnership with every new store it opens; it will partner with the Oakland Unified School District here in the East Bay.
Part of the partnership also involves engagement with the restaurant. The final portion of the workshop brings the students into a Sweetgreen location to get a hands-on feel for the restaurant at work. Further, Sweetgreen general managers (called “Head Coaches” in company parlance) go into the schools and help teach lessons. “The program helps us form a real connection between the store and the community,” said Ru.
These connections are key for all three of the founders. “We talk a lot about how to scale intimacy,” said Ru. “We want to make it clear that this is not just a restaurant. It is your restaurant.”