Greek From Greece Café Cuisine (GFG) was building momentum prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In January, the brand merged with fellow Greek restaurant Fournos Theofilos to expand more rapidly. A month later, GFG finalized a development deal to increase its footprint from 10 to 41 locations across the Northeast in converted Dairy Barn drive-thru convenience stores. In March, the café signed a deal to open its first franchise at a site near Drexel University in Philadelphia.
But with the onset of the crisis, GFG CEO George Drosos says the company shut down nearly all of its stores, which are in New York and New Jersey—two of the hardest hit states in terms of COVID cases. The one to remain open was the flagship Hoboken, New Jersey, unit where GFG tested COVID-19 responses to keep customers feeling safe and welcome. Those measures included serving with masks, Plexiglas barriers, and social distancing signage. As the company reopened, all of those safety initiatives were implemented in each store.
The Hoboken location is now utilizing outdoor dining while the rest of the restaurants are open for curbside pickup and delivery.
“From the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, we had to move swiftly and kept everyone safe,” Drosos says.
The GFG CEO says the company saw a significant drop in sales, but as the brand pivoted, consumers continually returned.
Drosos explains that one of GFG’s advantages amid the pandemic has been its health-conscious menu—a label often used when describing the Mediterranean diet.
Consumers’ increased preference for healthy food has been seen across the industry. For example, the National Restaurant Association listed the shift as one of six ways menus may change because of COVID, stating, “after months of more sedentary lifestyles and perhaps less-than-ideal eating habits, including eating breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks at home, restaurants expect some consumers to be motivated to order based on health.”
Drosos says customers go after the vegan options, salad items, and other Greek diet values that GFG projects into the customer base.
“The new consumers that are entering our stores via the delivery platform or for takeout are more health-conscious because of the pandemic,” Drosos says. “And they’re thinking that eating something that’s healthier and better for them helps with their health overall.”
As for future expansion, Drosos says he wants to be optimistic and say that growth plans haven’t changed.
Most of the 31 new Dairy Barn locations will keep a drive-thru and maintain a focus on takeout; some will also feature a dining area. This marks a new mode of operation for GFG, which has focused on eat-in cafés and kiosks since its inception. Thirty of the new stores will be in Long Island, New York, while the other will be in Stamford, Connecticut.
Drive-thrus have become a key factor for quick-service restaurants during the pandemic, which is why the segment is faring far better than full-service chains, according to the NPD Group. The research company stated, “Major [quick-service restaurant] chains were able to pivot operations to off-premise fast after the dine-in restrictions went into effect across the country since many have drive-thru windows and are set up to handle a high volume of takeout orders.”
GFG will be lined up to do the same in the future with the 31-unit development deal.
“We are very happy that we positioned ourselves in a model that will be in absolute demand in the future, and it’s evident,” Drosos says. “We believe that it’s going to play a huge role. The fact that the drive-thru is present is going to play a huge role in the expansion of the business.”
Drosos says the interest in franchise investment has been higher than usual, even during the pandemic. The brand said it’s seeking experienced multi-unit foodservice operators and scouting potential markets across the U.S. and internationally.
The Greek chain formed a partnership with Fransmart in October to accelerate the growth of franchising. Dan Rowe, CEO of Fransmart, said GFG is on the fast-track.
“It’s the perfect time for franchisees to get on board with this rapidly growing brand, particularly given the significant opportunity right now, when low-cost restaurant conversions can boost, and possibly double, their ROI,” Rowe said in a statement.
The franchise in Philadelphia is scheduled to open in August. GFG announced in June that another unit will open in Rye, New York. Construction should begin soon and the unit, which will feature 20 indoor seats and 60 outdoor seats, is scheduled to open in the fall.
Regarding the future of the industry, Drosos says “that’s the $1 million question.”
“Whoever has those answers are going to be placed in a very good position in the future,” Drosos says. “We are seeing that we are going to have change in off-premises consumption. We’re trying to basically serve our customers in the same way that we’re serving them in the store.”
“… We are still here, welcoming new franchisees,” he continues. “We are ready to accept them into our franchise family. We are ready to project Greek cuisine and hospitality in the whole country.”