Ones To Watch: Cava Mezze Grill

    This spinoff from a full-serve tapas bar applies the build-your-own platform to Mediterranean staples.

    Cava Grill

    Like many in the restaurant business, childhood friends Ike Grigoropoulos, Dimitri Moshovitis, and Ted Xenohristos sought a new service platform to bring their traditional Greek and Mediterranean cooking to more Washington, D.C., residents. The trio adapted their full-service concept, Cava Mezze Restaurant, to the fast-casual space, dubbing it Cava Mezze Grill, also known as Cava Grill.

    The company has grown to include three full-service restaurants and eight Cava Grill locations, with more of the fast-casual eateries to come in the D.C. market, says Brett Schulman, CEO of Cava Grill.

    “There was an opportunity to bring the Cava Mezze flavors and experience to the time-, taste-, health-, and budget-conscious consumer,” Schulman says. “We took the chef-driven flavors and quality of the full-service restaurant and put it in a different format.”

    Schulman says some of the Cava Mezze recipes had to be adapted for a fast-casual kitchen. For example, the dips and spreads remained the same at Cava Grill, but the fast-casual spinoff offers other toppings not found in the full-service restaurant. Schulman says there are also some different cooking processes, and ingredients were selected from the full-service menu based on if they could be held on the line for a time. “It’s not cook-to-order like the full-service restaurant,” Schulman adds. “It’s more of an assembly line.”

    The goal of creating the fast-casual spinoff was to stay true to the roots of the founders’ Greek heritage in an innovative, affordable, and customizable way. To stay authentic, the founders made lamb, a protein not commonly found in a fast-casual setting, the staple of the Cava Grill menu.

    “We do lamb well at our full-service restaurants, and we felt we could make it accessible at our fast-casual restaurants,” Schulman says. “Having lamb on the menu shows the culinary aspect we’re bringing from full service to Cava Grill.”

    Cava Mezze Grill

    CEO: Brett Schulman

    HQ: Washington, D.C.

    Year Started: 2011

    Annual Sales: Undisclosed

    Total Units: 8

    Franchise Units: 0

    Both braised lamb and lamb meatballs are available as protein choices. To order, guests first choose a base, which can be a salad made with a proprietary blend of organic arugula, spinach, romaine, or mesclun, called SuperGreens; a rice bowl; a large pita; two mini pitas; Greens & Grains, which mixes rice and salad greens; or a single mini pita and seasonal soup.

    As a guest moves down the assembly line, the next category is dips and spreads, which includes hummus; an eggplant and red pepper spread; harissa, a spicy spread made from tomatoes and peppers; Crazy Feta, a jalapeño-infused mousse made with imported Greek Feta; tzatziki; and roasted red pepper hummus.

    Step three is adding the protein. In addition to the lamb choices, options include braised beef, grilled chicken, grilled sirloin meatballs, or traditional falafel. Any Cava Grill entrée can then be customized with toppings like shredded romaine, kalamata olives, tomato and cucumber salad, crumbled Feta, quinoa tabbouleh, pickled onions, cabbage slaw, or cucumber with olive oil. There are also dressings, such as sriracha Greek yogurt, Greek vinaigrette, lemon herb tahini, spicy harissa, and lemon chai vinaigrette.

    Schulman says Cava Grill is a “health-oriented brand” that has broad appeal because vegetarians and vegans, as well as those with food sensitivities or allergies to gluten or dairy, can find something to enjoy. In addition to the variety, Schulman says, diners appreciate the freshness of the food at Cava Grill. Each restaurant makes everything fresh in its kitchen except the dips and spreads, which are made at central production kitchen.

    An average ticket at Cava Grill is between $12 and $13, and all locations are open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. “We have a good balance between lunch and dinner,” Schulman says.

    Most Cava Grill locations sell beer and wine, which “isn’t huge, but adds to the overall experience, especially during dinner hours,” he says. As for nonalcoholic beverages, Cava Grill has creative offerings that have allowed it to shrink its soda fountain in some locations as sales of specialty bottled drinks and house-made juices and teas have increased. Recent seasonal beverage offerings include Blackberry Sage Juice, Honey Basil Green Tea, Apple Cider, and Cucumber Mint Lime Juice.

    “These drinks fit more with the health aspect of our food,” Schulman says.

    A typical Cava Grill restaurant is 2,000–2,300 square feet with between 40 and 60 seats. The décor is what Schulman calls “modern casual.” This past fall, new stone-fired ovens were added to all Cava Grill locations to allow each unit to bake pitas from scratch. “We put a lot of thought into design and customer experience,” Schulman says. “We want people to experience and eat in a great atmosphere.”

    Cava Grill stores are located in diverse areas, including mixed-use suburban shopping centers, downtown urban areas, and heavy residential areas.

    “We hope to open a few more next year and then see if there is opportunity beyond our home region,” Schulman says. “We’d like to bring this to more markets.” There are no plans to franchise, he adds.