There are few restaurant brands that rode the whirlwind like CAVA did in 2023. The fast casual hit the public sector in June and saw 14.4 million shares change hands, good for a $318 million raise. At one point, the brand, which began as Cava Mezze in 2006 as a 1,700-square-foot, full-service Mediterranean restaurant in Rockville, Maryland, climbed to a value of $2.45 billion.
Following its full conversion of Zoës Kitchen units in Q3—a concept it acquired in 2018 for $300 million—CAVA had 290 stores across 24 states. It touted about 70, through 10 states, back when the deal was inked.
CAVA was on track for 70–73 net stores this year and said earlier the plan going forward would be annual growth of at least 15 percent (roughly 47–50 for 2024), with Chicago as a new-market entry on deck, among other targets as CAVA sets out to “define the next major cultural cuisine category.”
Four years after the original iteration’s founding by Ike Grigoropoulos, Chef Dimitri Moshovitis, and Ted Xenohristos, Brett Schulman came on board to morph the brand into the assembly line style model you see today, designed with bones to scale. CAVA has taken on myriad forms since, from large-café boxes to digital pickup lanes to hybrid kitchens that offer traditional dine-in alongside digital pickup, but with expanded kitchens to fuel the rise of catering.
All said, though, life likely isn’t going to take a breather for Schulman anytime soon. The CEO took some time to share his three key trends for the year.
Adapting to shifts in consumer behavior
We should keep close tabs on the changing consumer in 2024 and beyond. If you look at the generational shift, our country is getting more diverse. 48 percent of Gen Z identify as members of an ethnic minority group (up from 39 percent of Millennials), and our youngest, Gen Alpha, will be the first to cross the 50 percent mark. People don’t want to be bland, boring, and predictable—they want bold and adventurous. People are building a new kind of relationship with food. Younger generations look at food as self-expression—meaning that what and how they eat is a reflection of their identity. This means demand for new, exciting, and even surprising food options will likely be a key trend in the year ahead. At CAVA, we’ve seen success with exciting, bold and flavorful menu items, such as our Harissa Avocado Bowl, Sweet & Spicy Chicken Pita, and Fiery Broccoli to name a few.
We’ve seen the personalization trend build in the last few years, and I expect to see it continue to gain momentum in 2024 and beyond. Our new loyalty program, which we just started testing, is aimed at building even more meaningful connections with our diverse, passionate customer base, and creating more frequent, meaningful experiences.
Prioritizing wellness by helping people live and eat well
Health and wellness trends ranging from diets to weight loss drugs like Ozempic are likely factors that will impact the broader quick-service industry. While it’s too early to tell, we are hearing anecdotally that users of these medications are more regularly cutting out indulgent, unhealthy foods, snacking and alcohol. As they re-calibrate and reset the bar on their nutrition, quick-service restaurants that prioritize fresh ingredients and balanced meals will emerge successful.
CAVA is built on the principle of helping people eat and live well. We serve amazing food that just happens to be good for you, so people eat without compromise. So we think we’re naturally well positioned to make the most of these trends and expect to see other brands look for ways to calibrate.
Emphasis on human-based hospitality
I think we’ll see a return to something that made the restaurant business so successful in the first place—human-based hospitality and the communal act of gathering around a table to share a meal.
The fact is that we’re in the middle of a loneliness epidemic in this country. Amazon has replaced the department store, teams are gathering on Zoom, not around a conference table, and Netflix has taken the place of the movie theater. In fact, four in 10 Americans say they don’t feel attached to their community. In the wake of that, the Wall Street Journal reports diners now saying they won’t spend their money in places that don’t make them feel cared about.
We’re absolutely seeing that trend at CAVA. Our customers are craving connections and community, and mealtime presents a tremendous opportunity for that, which is why we believe the demise of the dining room has been greatly exaggerated.
What separates winning concepts from the pack are the people who deliver great service every day, in every restaurant, every shift. Consumers want to eat at a place that feels comfortable, familiar, and friendly, and this can be created only by a team that feels respected and cared for. I’m exceptionally proud of the work we’ve done in this area, and expect brands in the quick-service restaurant space to give special attention to the employee experience, bolster their benefits programs, and find creative ways to solidify employee culture across the company and in each restaurant location in 2024.
As far as technology innovation is concerned, I believe that tech solutions should be about enhancing, not replacing, the human experience. At CAVA we won’t sacrifice customer experience for efficiency, or test a new technology just for the sake of doing so. That’s why we’re intentional in how we approach innovation in our restaurants and across the business to optimize operations and efficiency. We’re very focused on giving guests an exceptional, connected experience no matter how to interact with us, and believe that as the digital-first trend continues, restaurants should spend ample resources to improve online, mobile and app interfaces.