It may seem like a contradiction in terms – Mediterranean fast food – but the concept, in different ways, has worked out so well for the assembly-line style of Cava Grill, and the cafe-concept of Zoe's Kitchen, that the two Greek-style chains have partnered and leaped into the top 10 of so-called fast-casual restaurants over the likes of Shake Shack.
What they've done, in essence, is try to merge the idea of a Mediterranean diet – where, in Greece and many Greek-American traditional restaurants, you can relax, eat slowly, talk, sip wine and move at your own pace, with the hurry-up eat-and-run Americans prefer.
It's worked for them, and news that the Washington, D.C.-based Cava, which began as the idea of Ike Grigoropoulos, Ted Xenohristos and chef Dimitri Moshovitis, were joining with Zoe's Kitchen, the idea of Zoe Cassiumus of Birmingham, Alabama, who opened one spot in 1995 although her family sold off its interest in 2007 after expanding rapidly, rattled the food sector.
Cava’s announcement of the $300 deal to purchase the publicly traded Zoe’s Kitchen signaled a major realignment in the fast-casual universe, the Washington Post said in a feature about the new team. The merger, if approved by shareholders and regulators, would create the largest Mediterranean-style restaurant chain in the country, with 327 locations in 24 states.
The Greeks behind both companies are no longer running them but the concepts caught the fancy of Americans running away from greasy, fried, hamburgers, French fries and the kind of McDonald’s and wannabes that predominated in the last half century, eager to find healthy food that was still served in a faster environment than sitting down in a restaurant with white linen tablecloths and a more expensive ambience.
Cava, in Greek, really refers to a liquor store where you can also buy beer and wine, not a restaurant but CEO Brett Schulman, a former Vice-President of Deutsche Bank who took over the company after meeting the Greek-American founders, said it’s become successful through a formula of good, healthy food at moderate prices and using data science that tracks what people eat, how long and where they sit and other information that leads to changes in the design and operation of the businesses.
A CRITICAL VIEW
Derided by critics as a “Mediterranean Chipotle,” referring to the similar fast-food Mexican food chain, Cava nevertheless has caught on with people who prefer Greek-style food that is fused with more American tastes.
“We view ourselves as modern interpreters of our traditional roots, with family partners that we source ingredients from in Greece,” Schulman told Washington City Paper.
Cava, like Zoe’s, started with a single store front, in Rockville, Maryland in 2006. As a private company it doesn’t release financial information and Schulman has been careful in interviews in discussing its plans, including whether it would turn Zoe’s into an assembly line style too and what the ultimate name would be once all the hummus has settled down – Cava sells that in Whole Foods stores.
The questions abound, the Post said: “Would Zoe’s add assembly-line customization to its menu? Would Cava feature more prepared dishes? Whose hummus recipe would win out?” When the merger is finalized, perhaps later this year, Cava will remain headquartered in the District, and Zoe’s office, now in Plano, Texas, will become a regional hub.
Schulman said he wants the new team to carry on with the basics that made each attractive to the fast-rising fast-casual audience. “It was just really compelling in the fact that our mission has always been to bring healthy food rooted in the heritage of Ted, Ike and Dimitri. This was a great opportunity for us to really amplify that mission,” he told the Post.
“We’ve always viewed ourselves as a culinary brand. We were born out of a full-service restaurant, then we started to produce and sell our dips and spreads in Whole Foods. Then we put it in an assembly-line, customized format. This gives us a way to express our brand in a cafe format. Now we have two different unique, dining options,” he said.
With Zoe’s having a strong position in the South and Southeast, and Cava tied mostly to the coasts, he said it made sense to fill in the blanks before deciding which way to go to make the two seamless.
“They have a loyal following, so we want to understand how we can best serve their needs, whether that’s through our assembly line at Cava or through the cafe format. We’re excited to think about how we can use all our capabilities, whether it’s our production capability with our dips and spreads or our technology with our engineering team, and apply them to the Zoe’s system,” he added.
GOING GREEK ….. STYLE
Zoe’s early success was based on simple, good food with a Greek and Mediterranean focus although Cassimus said her idea was never to create a Greek branded restaurant although the menu has items like Chicken and orzo soup with crackers, $3.29, Red Pepper Hummus, $5.89 Tossed Greek Salad, $9.89, and pita sandwiches and spinach and chicken rollups.
Cassimus said her father, who came from the Sparta area, settled in Birmingham and after working in restaurants, opened his own, called The Casino.
“He was the first person to have fresh fish in the city. And it was not it was not a Greek restaurant. It was never—there was never anything in there that, um, with the name “Greek” in it, other than a Greek salad and then when he started doing Greek-style fish. He was the first person to do that, which was just olive oil, lemon and oregano. But that was it. He never did Greek lamb or anything,” she told Southern Foodways Alliance in a 2004 interview.
Schulman noted that Cava just opened another spot in Charlotte, N.C. “We’re excited that this can translate to all parts of the country and then excited to bring Zoe’s Kitchen cafe format to complement in other neighborhoods. Or maybe even coexist in neighborhoods together. We want to make sure that they’re unique dining experiences,” still controlled by Moshovitis.
It’s another bold step in an effort to make Mediterranean stand out as the fast-casual food of choice across the country if a bit of a curious hybrid with Zoe’s having a bit of a cult following feel to it and Cava, for all its success, like a food factory.
Operationally, everything will remain “business as usual” for now, he said, noting, however, that “everything’s on the table” in terms of potential collaborations or operational efficiencies ahead, Schulman told Restaurant Business.
The mission, he told Business Insider, has been to offer a modern American take on traditional Mediterranean fare.
"I think the world continues to shift where you see limited-service formats producing high-quality food at an accessible price point," Schulman says. "People are eating out more, but they can't necessarily afford a full-service experience. With younger generations, I think they're focusing on what's going in their body and will use their disposable income for food with better sourced, higher quality ingredients."
Without waiters, Cava customers order at a counter, pick up the food and sit at tables, choosing from fare such as salads and bowls hummus and pita, spicy lamb meatballs, and falafel — that range from $8 to $11 and average 500 calories.
The opportunity is there, with the healthy movement picking up customers tired of the same old stuff they’d had, with relatively few choices. Since 1999, the sector has grown by 550%, more than 10 times the growth seen in the fast-food industry over the same period.
"We want to stay small as we get bigger,” said Schulman. “I think that is a huge challenge. As we grow, we don't want to lose the roots of that 1,700-square-foot Cava in Rockville that the guys opened 10 years ago.”