Luna Grill’s origins were sparked by a mom’s search for quick, healthy food to feed her then-4-year-old daughter. That preschooler is now a teenager, and the restaurant idea he inspired has grown into a 27-unit fast casual.
“As a mom, you need to have a place to swing by and pick up good food that’s healthy and tastes like you made it yourself,” says Luna Grill cofounder Maria Trakas Pourteymour. But the appeal of Luna Grill extends to anyone who cares about the type of food they are eating and how it makes them feel.
Pourteymour, Luna Grill’s chief cuisine officer, spent time when she was young in her family’s Greek restaurant. Combining that experience with her commercial real-estate developer husband Sean Pourteymour’s Iranian heritage resulted in a fusion of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors. The fact that the Mediterranean diet was starting to get noticed for being healthy contributed to Luna Grill’s success.
“We looked around and saw that people liked Mexican, Italian, and Chinese cuisine, and fast casual had snapped them up,” says Sean Pourteymour, Luna Grill CEO. “At the time, there was not a well-organized, fast-casual Mediterranean option, just mom-and-pop places.”
The menu at Luna Grill consists of wraps, salads, and plates. Plate choices include chicken, sirloin, and veggie kebobs; gyros; mahi-mahi; Cornish hen; lamb tenderloin; and Norwegian salmon. Plates come with a house salad, Basmati rice, pita bread, cucumber-yogurt dip, and a choice of carrots or grilled tomato garnish. Those same proteins are the foundations of the wrap and salad options.
The menu also includes house-made regular and spicy hummus, falafel, stuffed grape leaves, spinach pie, and both lentil and lemon chicken soup.
In creating the menu, the quality, freshness, and healthiness of ingredients were huge considerations. The meats used to make the kebobs are all-natural, additive-free, and humanely raised, and the Pourteymours support locally harvested produce, sustainable farming, and local businesses whenever possible.
While its growth has been significant in the past few years, Luna Grill did not become a chain overnight. The second location opened six years after the first.
“I was always fascinated by companies that expanded really rapidly and kind of imploded,” Maria Pourteymour says. “I had trepidations about being one of those, so we took the time to marinate the concept."
Luna Grill Fresh
COFOUNDERS: Sean & Maria Pourteymour
HQ: San Diego
YEAR STARTED: 2004
ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed
TOTAL UNITS: 29
FRANCHISE UNITS: 0
Her husband adds that “marinating the concept” meant developing and simplifying the menu and making sure resources were in place to grow.
“Then, in 2009, when the world started to fall apart—when businesses and banks were scared—we saw an interesting development where our demand and sales started exponentially going up,” Sean Pourteymour says.
During the recession, some previously stay-at-home parents were forced to go back to work, and others began working second jobs or longer hours. Luna Grill became the home kitchen a few nights a week.
Luna Grill’s fast casual 2.0 style of service, in which food is ordered at the counter and brought to the table, also appealed to consumers who may have enjoyed upscale full-service dining but were forced to cut back on their spending. Luna Grill plates start at $10.50, while wraps start at $8. Per-person tickets average between $11 and $12.
“Based on what we were experiencing, we put a design team together to start expansion,” Sean Pourteymour says. “The Mission Valley location at the IKEA center [in San Diego] was a big, bold move for us, but the landlord believed in us even though three other restaurants had gone out of business.”
Several more stores opened between 2009 and 2015, and then Luna Grill 3.0—an updated store prototype—launched. Maria Pourteymour says the team spent most of last year on a mission to upgrade the look and feel of the restaurants.
Eighteen more Luna Grill locations will be open by the end of 2017. The Pourteymours expect the brand to exceed 40 locations in the next 18 months. Last year, it also entered its first market outside California in Dallas. There are no plans to franchise, but the possibility has not been ruled out.
“Today, we’re in a place where this year alone we’ve opened nine restaurants,” Sean Pourteymour says. “We were able to do that because we’ve always planned ahead and invested in infrastructure and people. We’ve surrounded ourselves with brilliant people, from dishwashers all the way up.”