After apologizing to staff and the public for making controversial comments about the COVID-19 crisis last week, Sweetgreen CEO Jonathan Neman struck a slightly different tone during a company town hall on Tuesday. Per a recording of the meeting obtained by Motherboard, he said that while he regretted his choice of words, he still believed in the core message of a LinkedIn post in which he attributed the country’s high COVID-19 death toll to the average American’s weight.
Even as one staffer burst into tears while articulating a criticism of the priors behind his post, he doubled down, insisting on the validity of what he said while apologizing for how it was taken.
“I stand behind the intent of the post. I think the lesson for me was the way it was said triggered a lot of things on either side and had words in there that if you read the whole post was one thing but could easily be taken out of context,” Neman said during the Tuesday meeting, which took place over Google Hangouts. “The lesson for me was that we have an incredible comms team here. 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 all but one case, the Sweetgreen employees who spoke up during the town hall meeting tried to comfort their CEO, saying things like “don't beat yourself up,” “we believe in you,” “it took a lot of guts,” "it did start a discussion,” and “I didn't think it was offensive." In his LinkedIn post last week, Neman said that "78 percent of hospitalizations due to COVID are Obese and Overwight people." This, he suggested, meant that the country could only curtail the pandemic’s impact by addressing the country’s overall weight, even though around three-quarters of the U.S. population is obese or overweight.
Neman—who said that he is fully vaccinated and supports others getting vaccinated, but also said, "Our best bet is to learn how to best live with it and focus on overall health vs. preventing infection," appearing to embrace the "herd immunity" theory that would let the virus run rampant through the population—also questioned the government’s COVID-19 response and said the country should consider "health mandates" that ban or heavily tax foods offered by Sweetgreen's competitors. This is in line with comments Neman made internally over the past year suggesting that lifestyle choices—as opposed to the underlying healthcare system and inequity in access to healthier foods—were responsible for health outcomes like the hundreds of thousands of deaths from coronavirus.
After the LinkedIn post received swift backlash online, Neman deleted it and apologized over email to his staff. During the meeting, Neman called the public ordeal “a painful, painful lesson,” “a huge learning moment,” and “a moment of humility and vulnerability” for him. He also apologized for any negative effects the comments had on his employees. “I'm sorry for the impact that that has had on all of you, and on all of your teams,” he said.
But he also took a slightly more defiant tone at other times during the meeting, saying that the company was under “a larger microscope” now that it had confidentially filed to go public, but that “the conversation” he started with the LinkedIn post was “an important one that, in a way, I'm glad is now happening.” At another point, he thanked the “people who have reached out to me over the past week and all the people that have helped protect the brand and lead us through this crisis.”
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Neman opened up the town hall with an apology of sorts, but it was directed more at those he may have harmed by sullying the Sweetgreen brand than anyone he may have actually offended.
“I’m sorry to this team that I’ve let you down and that I put the brand at risk. I made our jobs harder in an already very stressful time with a lot going on,” Neman said. “And I’m really sorry that just, you know, you had to deal with all of the drama that ensued from the media storm that went on last week. I’m really sorry that you all had to deal with the repercussions of my, you know, mistake.”
That “mistake,” Neman revealed, came with a very heavy price: “It was one of the hardest weeks of my life and my career last week.” Neman also went on to say that the “mistake” obscured his “really good intention” aimed at attacking “the broken policy and food problems in this country.”
“So I want to make that really clear, the words could have been said much better. It could have been said much more eloquently, but the intent was real,” Neman said. “You all know that this is a core part of our mission, and something we truly believe in. And we believe that food is part of that solution. Sweetgreen alone is not going to solve this. Salads alone are not going to solve this.”
Some employees spoke up at the Q&A in defense of Neman’s comments, assuring him he did not hurt the Sweetgreen brand
"I liked the post. I think it addressed some of the issues that are not being talked about right now,” the first employee to speak said. “And I think the issue is honestly the conscious thought political divide right now that anything you see you're on this side or you're on that side and there's nothing else in the middle. Which I think is so messed up on so many levels. But for what it's worth, I didn't think it was offensive."
The next employee to speak was a new one who had only joined one week ago. She told the group that while she was “scared and nervous” when she first saw the post, it was ultimately cool and awesome. “I think everybody on this call understood what you meant by it, so don't beat yourself up,” the second employee said. “We believe in you, we believe in Sweetgreen, and thanks for doing this so much, that's really awesome so don't beat yourself up.”
Another recent hire also chimed in to support Neman, sharing that they thought his post on LinkedIn “took a lot of guts” and was a great opportunity to change the way people discussed health. “It got a lot of folks in the newsreel discussing what you said; good, bad, however they interpreted it, it did start a discussion. Just in my little circle, folks don't even know I work for Sweetgreen, but they're talking about it,” this employee added. “So I just wanted to say that, you know, kudos to you for just taking that risk and standing by what you're saying and I do support the theme of what this company and organization is trying to do.”
One single Sweetgreen employee expressed her frustration with Neman’s comments during Tuesday’s town hall, at one point getting choked up because she was still emotional, she said. The employee—who cited the "classist and racist thoughts behind our healthcare system" and noted that "most of our team members live at or below the poverty line"—asked Neman if the company planned to issue a retraction and said that his comments were being interpreted by some Sweetgreen employees as meaning he didn’t care if they wore a mask at work or not. One team member even refused on Friday morning as a direct result of Neman’s comments, she said.
Her comments to Neman, in full, were as follows (some parts were inaudible in the recording reviewed by Motherboard):
Will there be some sort of public statement or retraction or correction to what was said publicly? In response to all the media? Because [inaudible] we text and communicate a lot, and he and I have a difference in opinion of the post. I found it highly offensive, but also am aware of the mission statement of this company, and it's why I'm here. But I'm just curious, because your words do carry a lot of weight for a lot of us. I'm so sorry. I'm still emotional about it. But the things that were said are offensive, and a lot of our team members—I'm glad you're meeting with the head coaches. The work for me [inaudible] around what I feel [inaudible] how our teams responded, and [inaudible] team members who are highly aware. It was on the headlines of every news outlet in the country. Our team members saw it. And the work we're having to do here is dealing with how our team members have responded. And it is about, you know, “Why is the CEO of our company—why is his statement that he doesn't care if we wear masks or not? Why do I have to wear a mask today?” We literally had a team member Friday morning that refused to put a mask on because from the statement that they read, what they got from it was that it wasn't important to you, so then why are we mandating it? We also don't mandate it with our customers. And then, just, listen, there's a lot of classist and racist thoughts behind our healthcare system. You know, I understand your intention behind the words is that we need to create a better healthcare system for all. And I totally agree with that. But with the way that it was stated. There are a lot of other, you know, a lot of other interpretations that can be made and have been made by a lot of our team. You know, most of our team members live at or below the poverty line and don't have access to all the things that most of us on this call have.
After the employee finished her comments, Neman thanked her for her “honesty,” then said the company was “assessing what to do in terms of a response” but does "not have a plan yet.”
“I am addressing it with the head coaches later this afternoon. And it's very important to me that we make sure everybody feels heard throughout this,” Neman said. “To your point, I recognize that my words—depending on how they were read, but [to] certain people—could have been very hurtful. And for that, I'm really sorry. I want to clarify that my intent was not to be hurtful. I know I left out a lot of the systemic issues and causes around the problems in our healthcare system and left out a lot of the nuances that needed to be addressed.”
“Having said that, the intent of what I was trying to do was good and pure and honest,” he added. “And it came from a place of real passion and care for the healthcare of this country and the mission of this brand,” he added. “It is a complicated thing. It is not as simple as I made it seem in that post. And that was my mistake. However, just remember that it was a human mistake in terms of how it was said, but the intent was good.”
Sweetgreen did not immediately respond to a request for comment.