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CREATE 2023 Nathaniel Ru Lauren Bailey Jason McGowan Sam Oches large scale.jpg Ron Ruggless
At the CREATE Experience Founders Forum panel in Palm Springs, Calif., from left: Nathaniel Ru of Sweetgreen; Lauren Bailey of Upward Projects; Jason McGowan of Crumbl Cookies; and Sam Oches,

Founders look back, share what they would do differently

CREATE forum features Crumbl, Sweetgreen, Upward Projects leaders on how roles have changed

Founders of growing foodservice concepts like Crumbl Cookies, Sweetgreen and Postino WineCafe see some things that have changed about their roles, but the concept leaders would do little differently.

Lauren Bailey, CEO and co-founder of Upward Projects and Postino WineCafe; Jason McGowan, CEO and co-founder of Crumbl Cookies, and Nathaniel Ru, co-founder and chief brand officer of Sweetgreen, on Monday reflected on how their roles had evolved in a CREATE Experience Founders Forum conversation with Sam Oches, group director for editorial at Informa’s restaurant and food group.

“I think each of our roles has gotten a little bit more siloed,” said Ru, who co-founded Sweetgreen 2007 with Jonathan Neman and Nicolas Jammet. “I feel like in the beginning it was a lot more fluid.”

Bailey said she was fortunate to learn the restaurant business through operations. The original wine cafe opened in 2001.

“When we were small,” she told the Palm Springs, Calif., group, “we were like a little speed boat. It's easy to change course. You can just say, ‘We're not going to do that anymore.' We're going to use these straws and not these straws. Now, it takes literally six weeks to change straws.”

The result of more locations, Bailey said, is “just messaging it differently.” 

McGowan, who opened the first Crumbl Cookies in Logan, Utah, in 2017, said his role has changed dramatically.

“My first role was like just as an individual founder,  jumping in [and] trying to do as much as you can as a founder without dropping the ball, even though they are dropping,” McGowan said. That has evolved into a leadership role, he added.

“It's not about what you can do, it is what you can get your team to do,” McGowan said. “I moved into that kind of leadership role and working with teams and trying not to have favorites but at the same time building a culture.”

Founders still observe the small details, the founders agreed, such as picking up errant waste. But the base role is inspiration.

“It's really about inspiring and inspiring the leaders and making sure that they can dream big and push beyond and be better,” McGowan said.

Relationships among founders also changes as concepts grow, Ru noted.

“We all kind of grew up in this business together,” Ru said of his contributors. “I think the one thing that we do that is really important is we actually try to carve out once a year founders' retreat, where the three of us go and we kind of go solo.” The first retreat was outside the District of Columbia and the most recent was at Joshua Tree National Park in California.

“We all spend time connecting about the business, but we also just check in with each other. That once-a-year weekend trip goes a long way in seeing how people are feeling,” Ru said.

He added that he would take mistakes less deeply than he did when Sweetgreen’s started.

“You just have to really be resilient and not let things really affect you,” he said. “I think when you're young and you're starting a company and something goes wrong, you think it's the biggest deal. I think if I were to go back and tell myself not to worry about these things.”

Bailey said she would invest in relationships even more. “I don't remember ever going to something like this, sitting in a room like this, listening to founders and I would have probably built that a little bit sooner,” she said. “It's just such a beautiful thing how many people are willing to help.”

McGowan said he encourages founders to have fun.

“Some of my favorite memories are not having all these locations,” he said. “It’s me making deliveries and seeing the customers’ faces.”

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]

Follow him on X/Twitter: @RonRuggless

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