Emerging Concepts | August 2012 | By Judy Kneiszel

One to Watch: Zoës Kitchen

Fast-casual concept focuses on healthy options with a Mediterranean twist.

Zoës Kitchen started the way many mom and pop restaurants do. Zoë Cassimus made her grandmother’s chicken salad recipe for social gatherings, and family and friends told her she should open her own place. So she did.

It grew into an 18-restaurant chain before Cassimus sold it in 2007 to Brentwood Associates, a Los Angeles–based private equity firm. Since then, the number of Zoës Kitchen locations has more than tripled. Kevin Miles, president of the concept, says to expect 20–25 more stores to open in 2013.

The chicken salad remains a staple on the Zoës Kitchen menu, along with other Mediterranean-inspired offerings like chicken and orzo soup, Greek salad, and pita sandwiches. Hummus is made on premises and is available with pita bread or in a salad plate along with Greek salad, cucumber raita sauce, olives, and pita bread. Classic deli offerings like tuna salad or turkey sandwiches on 7-grain bread are also popular.

“Zoë had more of a sandwich lunch business,” Miles says. “We’ve added more dinner items and switched to real plates and silverware. We’ve kept what was core to Zoës Kitchen and upgraded.”

Added menu items include Chicken Kabobs, served with grilled peppers and onions, tomato, rice pilaf, and a side Greek salad. Chicken, steak, and spinach roll-ups on tortillas are also popular additions. Miles says the menu is best described as Mediterranean-inspired recipes with a Southern twist. That Southern twist is evident in offerings like the pimento cheese sandwich, available cold or grilled.

Zoës Kitchen

President: Kevin Miles

HQ: Birmingham, Alabama

Year Started: 1995

Annual Sales: Undisclosed

Total Units: 64

Franchise Units: 9

www.zoeskitchen.com

Miles says Zoës Kitchen has something for every guest, operating with customers’ dietary concerns in mind. Nothing at Zoës Kitchen is deep-fried, and there are plenty of gluten-free, vegan, and vegetarian options.

“There are no peanuts in our restaurants, and we make sure our team understands what gluten free really means, which items and ingredients are gluten free, and which ones are not,” Miles says.

For the calorie conscious, Zoës Kitchen offers about 30 menu items that weigh in around or less than 500 calories. The Protein Power Plate with flat-grilled chicken, caramelized onions, and slaw is available for guests who are trying to reduce their intake of carbohydrates.

Miles says the Zoës Kitchen customer base is predominantly female.

“Females drive a big percentage of dining decisions,” he says. “Males are usually introduced to Zoës Kitchen by a female coworker, girlfriend, or wife. That’s how the male customer finds us. But after they come once or twice with a friend, they come more on their own.”

Zoës Kitchen added steak to appeal to men, as well as beer and wine to the beverage menu to eliminate what Miles calls “the veto vote in the family if dad wants a beer with dinner or mom wants a glass of wine.”

Whether it’s steak kabobs or a salad, Zoës Kitchen customers are looking for quality, he says. “We have educated customers who are discerning about what they eat,” Miles says. “They want fresh vegetables and meats. They don’t want to feel guilty about what they are putting in their mouth.”

But Zoës Kitchen customers are busy as well as discerning, which is why carryout is a big part of the concept’s sales. Dinners for four are available to go, with entrees like Chicken Kabobs, Greek Chicken Marinara, or an eight-pack of roll-ups with the customer’s choice of fillings. The meals to go come with sides like rice pilaf, pita bread, and Greek salad.

“About 30 percent of our food leaves the building,” Miles says. “And this summer, we launched a campaign around our Fresh Take Cooler. A lot of our customers for years have gotten our Take Home Tubs. It’s always been a staple of our business, but we’re trying to put a new spin on how to use it, saying, ‘Hey, grab some of Zoës cheese for your burgers, or make fish tacos with our marinated slaw.’ We want to encourage people to use something from Zoës Kitchen to make something quick at home.”

Items available in Take Home Tubs include hummus, chicken salad, pimento cheese, marinated slaw, potato salad, pasta salad, tuna salad in classic or Mediterranean style, egg salad, and seasonal fresh fruit.

Zoës Kitchen stores are usually positioned in the end cap of a strip center, though there are a few freestanding locations.

“We’re not a drive-thru concept,” Miles says. “But we look for easy-in, easy-out locations in high-volume areas. We are predominantly in suburban areas, but we do have a store in Arlington, Virginia, that is more urban.”

The original 18 Zoës Kitchen restaurants are being remodeled this year. After the renovations are complete, they will join the newer stores in serving beer and wine and will no longer use disposable tableware.

“We are in the process of remodeling to get the fresh look of the newer stores in those original 18,” Miles says.

The focus of Zoës Kitchen will then turn to growth in existing markets and expansion into new markets, including Philadelphia and Oklahoma.