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Sweetgreen co-founder and CEO apologizes for comments on COVID and obesity

Jonathan Neman, whose fast-casual salad chain filed to go public in June, said his earlier statement that called for a tax on processed foods, among other things, was “insensitive and oversimplified.”
Photograph: Shutterstock

Sweetgreen co-founder and CEO Jonathan Neman on Tuesday apologized for comments he made the week before that linked obesity to the COVID pandemic and called for a ban on processed foods.

Neman’s original comments, made on a since-deleted LinkedIn post, generated significant backlash in the form of articles and social media posts.

Los Angeles-based Sweetgreen, which has more than 120 locations, confidentially submitted plans for an initial public offering in June. No further details have been released on the IPO.

In his new LinkedIn note, Neman said his original goal had been “to start a conversation around the systemic healthcare issues in the country.”

“Words matter,” he wrote, “and the words I chose were insensitive and oversimplified a very complex issue that is impacted by larger socioeconomic factors.”

Neman noted in the post’s comments section that he shared the apology with Sweetgreen’s internal teams Tuesday morning.

“My intention was not to be discriminatory or to discount the importance of getting vaccinated and wearing masks to combat COVID-19,” he wrote. “Wearing masks and getting vaccinated works to protect against COVID-19. Full stop.”

He had previously said “no vaccine nor mask will save us.”

Neman hosted a virtual, all-company town hall Tuesday to address the issue, according to Vice. He called the incident one of the hardest weeks of his life and his career, but said he remains committed to the original intent of the post, according to a recording of the event obtained by the publication. 

"The lesson for me was that we have an amazing comms team here," Neman said at the town hall, according to Vice. "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.”

In his original, now-deleted post, Jonathan Neman cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistic noting that 78% of those hospitalized for COVID-19 have been overweight or obese.

“We have been quick to put in place Mask and Vaccine mandates but zero conversation on HEALTH MANDATES,” Neman wrote in the deleted post which has been shared widely online. “All the while we have printed unlimited money to soften the blow that shutdowns have caused to our country.”

He added: “What if we focused on the ROOT CAUSE and used this pandemic as a catalyst for creating a healthier future??”

Late last month, Sweetgreen announced its acquisition of Spyce, a robot-powered bowl concept with an electric delivery fleet.

Sweetgreen was founded in 2007 by Neman, Nicholas Jammet and Nathaniel Ru—all Georgetown University students at the time. By 2018, it was valued at $1 billion. Most recently, it has an estimated valuation of $1.78 billion, according to Bloomberg.

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