It’s impossible to downplay the importance of mobile ordering during COVID-19. A November survey from Appetize showed more than 74 percent of people used their phone to order and pay for food and merchandise at least once a week amid pandemic conditions. Nearly 50 percent did so “several times a week or more.”

The good news, especially in quick service, is that a sizable number of chains already had the tech in place, or at least on the doorstep, when COVID-19 crashed 2020. But the novelty faded a bit in the past nine months. So restaurants are starting to spin from simply having mobile ordering available to differentiation as we head into a new year.

Fast casual CAVA launched its new app December 15. It’s designed around a changing guest, with a healthy dose of COVID-19 learnings along the way. Namely, CAVA is taking a tech-forward approach to evolve into a more personalized experience, and also to facilitate easy discovery of the chain’s Mediterranean flavors. The end result merges in-store and digital experience to meet guests where they are, CAVA said, and to redefine hospitality.

Essentially, the app acknowledges that out-of-store dining carries just as much weight today for customers. For brands, it means ensuring off-premises technology reflects hospitality and core traits, just like dining in would have before.

CAVA CEO Brett Schulman chatted with QSR about the new app, what this update says about the future, and how the brand is staying ahead of a rapidly changing restaurant-customer engagement dynamic.

What inspired CAVA to launch a new app? What were some targets you set out to address, and how do you think this will offer a more personalized experience for consumers?

CAVA was founded with the idea that hospitality must be at the center of our guest experience. The act of placing a digital order is traditionally a transactional experience. In an increasingly digital-first world, we are using technology to enhance the human experience with an elevated sense of discovery. Our digital customer journeys are designed to balance speed and joy. Further, the pandemic accelerated our plans to expand access points with Curbside Pick Up and Delivery, knowing the vital role these components play in a newly adapted dining experience. Going forward, we’ll continue to harness customer feedback and learnings to evolve the digital restaurant experience and meet customers where they are.

On the back end, what did the data suggest needed to change?

The team used rapidly shifting guest behaviors to inform menu strategy. For example, our average check significantly increased as guests were placing multi-entree orders.  To accommodate this shift in guest behavior, we added an entirely new menu category to digital ordering platforms – a Family Meal, a large-format offering that can feed the whole family at home, and accelerated the launch of curated bowls. Because of this nimble and reactive development process, the new CAVA app now offers a wide array of ordering formats and access points so that guests can plan meals seamlessly to fit their individual needs.

How does this version merge in-store and digital elements and re-humanize the customer experience?

Our physical locations are powered by real, full-service restaurant trained chefs and Team Members who deeply care about each meal we serve, and we aim for the app to deliver an equally as warm and hospitable experience. The new ordering interface features a highly visual UX that mimics our in-store walk the line format, showing off each menu item with vibrant images, and encouraging discovery of new ingredients and Medierranean flavors as users follow the same flow as they would in the restaurant. To make the discovery process as easy as possible, guests can also opt to select images or text associated with specific ingredients they’d like to add to their bowl. For those who prefer a more designed experience, we offer a specific selection of curated bowls and salads.

Guests Sit At A Table Inside A Restaurant

Take us through some of the changes, starting with the “walk-the-line” feature. Why was that an important element—to recreate the in-store experience digitally?

CAVA is known for customization and the culinary journey of walking the line to select each unique element of our Mediterranean menu. Our team designed the UX very intentionally so that each component is added at the right time to both reflect this in-person experience but also, from a culinary perspective, build upon existing flavors and textures. Each bowl is often unique to the guest’s personal tastes and flavor profiles—and we want to ensure that the process of creating each meal flows as seamlessly as it would in-person so that they have the same creative liberty regardless of where they order from.

Elaborate on image-based ordering as well. It seems like a theme is starting to emerge in terms of bringing day-to-day interactions into a new digital arena.

Yes, our digital customer journeys are designed to balance speed and joy. We aim for digital ordering to be more appetite inducing with emotive imagery which encourages fluid decision making based on the whims of the moment. We designed this feature to help serve customers who are strapped for time and want to make quick, easy decisions, as well as help visualize the experience for guests who are looking for more inspiration when crafting their meals.

Especially given COVID-19 restrictions, accessibility has gained relevance. Firstly, how has this evolved for CAVA over the past nine or so months? How quickly did the system get curbside up, and what other tech needed to be added or enhanced to serve customers during this time?

The strength of our in-house engineering capabilities and team agility greatly accelerated the launch of new contactless access channels. Projects that typically took 6-12 months were accomplished in a matter of several weeks and drove meaningful access improvements like curbside pickup and in-app delivery when guests needed contactless options most. We also completely adapted the customer journey and redesigned our restaurant experience with guest and team safety top of mind.


How does this unfold in the new app?

Guests can recreate the entire in-store experience on the app or use the various access points for a blended physical and digital experience—our goal is and always has been to create opportunities for guests to get their CAVA as easily as possible, when and how they want it.

There’s also now an ability to edit dietary preferences. How important was this? Have guests asked for it?

Guests can set and edit dietary preferences at any time, including: sugar free, dairy free, egg free, soy free, sesame free, vegan, vegetarian and paleo. This was another important element for us to add in terms of how we translated the physical experience to digital—in-person, you can easily ask our Team Members about allergens or specific ingredients in each dish. We wanted to take the guesswork out of building a dish online, ensuring we can deliver a consistently personalized experience that takes account of each guest’s varied needs.

Moving forward, how do you see the app evolving, and what role will it play in a post-COVID landscape?

The pandemic has accelerated digital adoption and usage. We will continue to build UX enhancements that make both the physical and digital purchase journeys frictionless with the use of our app.  Next year, we will roll out a new in-store payment and loyalty capture experience, as well as an enhanced curbside notifications system and other personalization elements in the future.

Domino's Wings

Talk about rewards and how critical that’s been to connect with guests of late. Has CAVA seen a major lift in frequency and sign-ups during the pandemic?

Our loyalty program creates an added value experience for guests both in-store and through our digital channels, allowing them to earn as they purchase. During the pandemic, both our loyalty program and the use of our digital access channels to earn loyalty rewards saw significant increases.

What are some things people can expect from the brand headed into the future? From store models to accessibility points, drive thru potentially, and more. How will CAVA stay ahead of the rapidly changing industry?

CAVA has been a multi-format, digitally enabled brand since day one. We were one of the first in the fast casual industry, in early 2019, to test and launch digital order enabled drive thru lanes, which we call Pick Up By Car. We knew our guests craved access to CAVA in increasingly convenient and more modern ways and that need has only increased with the pandemic. We are always working on our future state, whether that’s through the introduction of new menu items or new and enhanced access channels. We continuously strive to deliver unparalleled levels of hospitality when and where our guests need it most.

Fast Casual, Story, Technology, Cava