In a new LinkedIn post, Sweetgreen co-founder and CEO Jonathan Neman walked back his earlier comments on the coronavirus a week after he proclaimed that "no vaccine nor mask will save us" from the pandemic.
"My intention was not to be discriminatory or to discount the importance of getting vaccinated and wearing masks to combat COVID-19," he said in the new post. "Wearing masks and getting vaccinated works to protect against COVID-19. Full stop."
Earlier, Neman claimed that "our best bet is to learn how to best live with [the virus] and focus on overall health vs preventing infection." His comments came as the Culver City salad chain gears up for an initial public offering.
The startup best known for selling $14 salads confirmed in June it confidentially filed for an IPO. Earlier this year the company was valued at $1.8 billion.
Neman wrote in the original post, "What if we made the food that is making us sick illegal? What if we taxed processed food and refined sugar to pay for the impact of the pandemic?"
The first post, which went up on Sept. 1, immediately attracted attention, with Motherboard first reporting on it and other media piling on.
In the latest post, Neman said in a near-apology that he intended to "start a conversation around the systemic healthcare issues in the country." The executive added, "Words matter and the words I chose were insensitive and oversimplified a very complex issue that is impacted by larger socioeconomic factors."
Neman reportedly stuck a different tone In an internal meeting with staff. The executive said he stands "behind the intent" of his earlier comments, and that the lesson he learned was to consult with his PR team, Motherboard reports. "We have a great team that could have helped craft that message in a way to not be so divisive and to be more effective," he said.
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In a LinkedIn post, Sweetgreen co-founder and CEO Jonathan Neman wrote this week that "no vaccine nor mask will save us" from the coronavirus, while seemingly suggesting healthier eating as a suitable alternative to widely-recommended preventative measures.
Neman's comments quickly drew backlash on social media, with responses ranging from sarcasm to an invitation for the CEO to eat one Twitter user's size 12 shorts. The controversy comes as the Culver City-based company prepares for an IPO.
The post, which also suggested taxing processed foods, was deleted from Neman's LinkedIn account soon after it was brought to light by Motherboard. But it was up long enough to potentially sour would-be investors and consumers.
Neman's post opened with a statistic from a March CDC study that linked patients who had a higher body mass index (BMI) with an "increased risk for hospitalization and death." The BMI method has faced criticism from experts for being unreliable and racist.
Still, Sweetgreen's CEO said "Our best bet is to learn how to best live with [the virus] and focus on overall health vs preventing infection."
"We have been quick to put in place Mask and Vaccine Mandates but zero conversation on HEALTH MANDATES," he went on. "All the while we have printed unlimited money to soften the blow the shutdowns have caused to our country."
The delta variant has made August one of the darkest months in the pandemic as hospitalization rates across the country reach levels seen last winter. The surge of cases has forced a wave of new restrictions in Los Angeles county even as the state reached a milestone for vaccinations.
The CEO said in LinkedIn's comments section that he wanted to have a dialogue.
"What if we made the food that is making us sick illegal?" he wrote in the post. "What if we taxed processed food and refined sugar to pay for the impact of the pandemic? What if we incentivized health?"
Days later, Neman walked back his statements, saying he did not intend to be "discriminatory or to discount the importance of getting vaccinated and wearing masks to combat COVID-19." He added in a new LinkedIn post:
My goal was to start a conversation around the systemic healthcare issues in the country. Words matter and the words I chose were insensitive and oversimplified a very complex issue that is impacted by larger socioeconomic factors.
The salad chain that appeals to the tech lunch set is known for its $14 salads.
Sweetgreen, which built a reportedly $1.78 billion business selling high-priced salads, did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the controversy.
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'In a Weird Way We Were Very Well Positioned for This': Sweetgreen Reopens Stores and Brings Back Workers
After protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd prompted Sweetgreen to close most of the locations it hadn't yet shuttered because of the coronavirus, the Culver City-based fast casual chain said Tuesday that it's on the rebound.
CEO Jonathan Neman announced the company has reopened most of its restaurants and rehired some of the 2,000 workers that it furloughed.
"We've brought back half of employees," Neman said at an Axios forum. "I'm confident we can bring back the other half soon."
During the pandemic, Sweetgreen transitioned to an all-delivery and pickup model. Even before the twin crises struck, about 55% of its orders were made online. "We have been able to get back a lot of our business because in a weird way we were very well positioned for this," said Neman.
Without elaborating, Neman revealed that the company ended an exclusive contract with Uber Eats that it signed last year. "Given all that's gone on we have made the decision to be non-exclusive partners," he said.
Neman said he had no second thoughts about returning a $10 million Payroll Protection Program loan the company was approved for in April, even though Sweetgreen had to furlough the 2,000 store employees and layoff 10% of the 350 staffers at its Culver City headquarters. And as it turns out, the PPP program is now flush with cash, as more than $130 billion has gone unspent in the last month.
"I do not regret the decision," said Neman. "Hopefully that money can be used for companies and jobs that better need it."
Since Neman co-founded the company in 2007, Sweetgreen has been on a lofty trajectory that values it more like a tech company than a restaurant chain. Last year, it raised $150 million of Series I venture funding at a $1.45 billion pre-money valuation, according to Pitchbook.
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