Facing Plunging Revenue, Sweetgreen Lays Off 10% of Staff At Its L.A. Headquarters (Exclusive)

Sweetgreen, the trendy fast casual salad chain that is now beset by plunging revenue amid a shutdown of in-store dining, has cut 10% of the 350 employees at its Culver City headquarters, dot.LA has learned.

Dozens of terminated workers were read a pre-written script at the end of last month and were then logged-out of their Slack and email accounts. "They blindsided us and they weren't transparent," said a former employee, who declined to be identified because Sweetgreen made him sign a nondisclosure agreement. "It was disappointing."


The former employee said he was surprised to be terminated soon after he and others had been assured by executives that Sweetgreen was adapting to the post Covid-19 era relatively well and their jobs would be safe. "This came out of nowhere," he said.

A Sweetgreen spokeswoman confirmed the layoffs but declined to provide any details. Earlier this month the Spoon, a food tech website, reported that Derek Pietz, former head of automation, and Ken Cottle, who had been director of engineering, were among those laid off.

The restaurant industry has been devastated by the novel Coronavirus, but tech-forward Sweetgreen would seem to be much better positioned than most to survive. It was one of the first fast casual chains to let people order ahead on an app in 2013 and even before the crisis 55% of its orders were made online.

However, consumers under financial strain might decide paying $13 for a salad is a luxury they can forgo. After the pandemic, app order volume fell by two-thirds, according to a former employee (Sweetgreen declined to comment). It doesn't help that much of the company's business was geared towards offices that are now closed and that a major initiative was expanding its Outpost program where couriers could leave dozens of salads in workplaces and apartment buildings.

Before the pandemic, Sweetgreen had opened 700 Outposts since launching the program in 2018, but now they are shuttered.

The company told dot.LA it redirected Outpost employees to a new collaboration with World Central Kitchen and the celebrity chef Jose Andres called Impact Outpost that aims to supply 100,000 free salads and bowls to hospital workers. Sweetgreen says it has already delivered 10,000 meals.

Co-founders Nicolas Jammet and Jonathan Neman in front of their Dupont Circle Sweetgreen restaurant, 2014.

"As we continue to navigate COVID-19, our mission remains the same — to connect people to real food," the company said in a statement. "We've implemented additional safety and sanitation guidelines including face masks and wellness checks for team members, tamper-proof seals on bowls and bags, as well as contact-free delivery for peace of mind."

Since its founding in Washington D.C. in 2007, Sweetgreen has been on a lofty trajectory that valued it more like a tech company than a restaurant chain. Last year, the company raised $150 million of Series I venture funding at a $1.45 billion pre-money valuation, according to Pitchbook.

In a lengthy New York Times profile earlier this year, founder and CEO Jonathan Neman said his goal was to grow the number of stores by 35% to 40% a year and expand to 1,000 locations. He also predicted an IPO should happen "eventually, probably, at some point."

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Today:

  • Apple Podcast Veteran Steve Wilson Joins Startup QCODE
  • Amazon in Exclusive Talks to Buy Podcast Studio Wondery, Wall Street Journal Reports
  • Pharrell Launches Black Ambition Incubator

    Apple Podcast Veteran Joins Startup QCODE

    qcode www.sonos.com

    QCODE, a Los Angeles podcast startup run by a former Creative Artists Agency talent agent, snagged longtime Apple podcast executive Steve Wilson. The 15-year veteran will become QCODE's chief strategy officer.

    QCODE, which last month raised $6.4 million in a Series A round led by Sono, is positioning itself as a funnel for Hollywood.

    Founded by Rob Herting, a former agent who had represented largely writers and filmmakers, the company has produced eight shows since 2019. Several have been auctioned for film and television, including "Dirty Diana." Amazon picked up the 6-part erotic drama for a TV series.

    Wilson, who most recently ran marketing for Apple Podcasts, brings insights from the behemoth platform as the industry sees revenues soar. Advertising brought in near $1 billion this year, according to Interactive Advertising Bureau's podcast report prepared by PwC.

    Amazon Reportedly in Exclusive Talks to Buy Wondery

    Hernan Lopez Hernan Lopez started Wondery with the belief that in-depth, narrative audio stories were poised to bloom.

    Amazon is in "exclusive talks" to buy podcast company Wondery and subsume its 30 hit shows and over 8 million monthly listeners into its empire, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.

    The talks reportedly value Wondery above $300 million, in line with previous estimates from analysts, when Apple and Sony were said to have expressed interest.

    Wondery has produced dozens of original series including "Dr. Death" and "Business Wars," and has 19 shows currently in development to become television series.

    The company does not publicly disclose its financials, but chief executive Hernan Lopez has previously said the company is profitable. About three-quarters of Wondery's revenue comes from advertising, but Lopez has said the company's revenue share from content licensing is growing (Wondery owns the intellectual property for all of its originals). It also launched a subscription service, Wondery Plus, in June and is currently looking to expand its international footprint.

    Wondery, the West Hollywood-based company with the largest audience of any independent podcast producer, has been the subject of swirling rumors that several suitors are interested in acquiring it.

    After a pandemic-induced decline that struck much of the podcasting industry, Wondery's audience has surpassed its pre-COVID levels. Its Q3 revenue was about double year-on-year and its Q4 performance has been strong, Lopez previously told dot.LA.

    Podcasting overall now attracts over 100 million monthly listeners, according to Edison Research. The Interactive Advertising Bureau projects podcasting revenues to exceed $1 billion by 2021.

    That growth has spurred somewhat of an arms race, most evident in Spotify's spending spree, which also has helped that company diversify from its reliance on streaming. Amazon Music is one of Spotify's biggest competitors along with Apple Music, and recently expanded into podcasts as well.

    Acquiring Wondery would give Amazon more content to slide into Amazon Music, a scaled-down version of which is free for Amazon Prime subscribers. Combining that content with its Alexa smart speaker also could empower the company to capture more eyes and ears in the increasingly competitive attention economy.

    The talks are reportedly ongoing and no deal has been confirmed.

    Pharrell Launches Black Ambition Incubator

    Pharrell Williams Pharrell Williams Launches Black Ambition Incubator

    Rapper and producer Pharrell Williams released "Entrepreneur" with Jay-Z earlier this summer, a song that became an anthem for Black ambition. Now, Williams is launching an incubator to put money behind his message.

    Called Black Ambition, the nonprofit aims to invest in Black and Latino startup founders, and it's beginning by creating two prize competitions set to close in July 2021. The effort backed by Adidas, Chanel and philanthropic organizations including The Rockefeller Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation. Silicon Valley startup investor Ron Conway and Buzzfeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti also contributed.


    The first competition will award up to $250,000 to current students or recent alumni from a historically Black college developing or in the seed stage of a company. Smaller prizes will be awarded to at least nine additional teams.

    The second competition, called the Black Ambition Prize, will give $1 million in seed money to an early-stage company focused on tech, design, healthcare or consumer products and services. Another nine teams will get smaller prizes. Finalists will be connected with and mentored by a network venture capitalists and angel investors.

    "Because we don't have enough of the market share, our kids end up having issues with disproportionate access to healthcare, disproportionate access to education and as a culture, we have disproportionate access as it pertains to legislation and representation," Williams said in a video announcing the news.

    Williams was inspired to pool talent from historically Black colleges and universities and build a new pipeline of investment and resources to young people.

    "We want to lift our HBCUs. They lift so many of us. They deserve to be in lights," Williams said. "We think it's high time that we own more companies.

    In August, Williams published a piece in Time Magazine that accompanied a cover spread on "The New American Revolution." It coincided with his release of "Entrepreneur," the song and music video he produced with Jay-Z as a tribute to Black founders across the nation.

    "Recent events and tragedies have illustrated the always existent stark divisions in the American experience, and while entrepreneurship has long been a tenet of the American dream, marginalized people have faced long-standing barriers to success," Williams said in a statement.

    Rapper and producer Pharrell Williams released "Entrepreneur" with Jay-Z earlier this summer, a song that became an anthem for Black ambition. Now, Williams is launching an incubator to put money behind his message.

    Called Black Ambition, the nonprofit aims to invest in Black and Latino startup founders, and it's beginning by creating two prize competitions set to close in July 2021. The effort backed by Adidas, Chanel and philanthropic organizations including The Rockefeller Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation. Silicon Valley startup investor Ron Conway and Buzzfeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti also contributed.

    Read more Show less

    On this week's episode of the LA Venture podcast, hear from Lightspeed Ventures' partner Nicole Quinn. The iconic Silicon Valley fund has $10 billion in assets under management. Quinn focuses on early-stage consumer internet and fintech companies, with a portfolio that includes Calm, Goop, Lady Gaga's House, Rothy's, Zola and Girl Boss.

    Quinn says "you can't be called Lightspeed and move slowly" and explains how they can get a term sheet done in two to three days. She also shares lots of insights on building an enduring brand that are applicable whether you're in the consumer space or creating an insurance company.

    Read more Show less
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