Cava, the fast-growing Mediterranean-style restaurant chain, opened its first Innovation Kitchen on Monday, in its home market of Washington D.C. Here, the company will test new ingredients, menu items and technology to enhance customer experience, rolling out its successes to Cava’s other 85 U.S. locations, Cava CEO Brett Schulman, told Forbes.
“We’re constantly working to re-imagine the customer experience,” says Schulman, 47. “At Cava we rely heavily on customer feedback and data and now we’ll be able to implement it at scale.”
The first menu items to come down the pipeline at Cava’s new Innovation Kitchen include a vegan garlic sauce, crispy chickpeas and honey harissa chicken. New digital menu boards will display the queue of customer orders being prepared and menu items by Cava’s executive chef and cofounder, Dimitri Moshovitis.
Moshovitis, Ted Xenohristos, and Ike Grigoropoulos, all childhood friends as well as first-generation Greek Americans, launched Cava as a single location restaurant in Rockville, Maryland in 2006. The trio saw an opportunity to bring the Greek cuisine they grew up with to the mainstream, also launching a line of signature dips and spreads.
To get their Cava-branded renditions of traditional Greek recipes, such as Crazy Feta, Organic Caramelized Onion Hummus and Eggplant and Roasted Red Pepper Dip into more stores, the friends needed someone who knew the market. Schulman, then COO of Snikiddy Snack, had helped his wife’s company get its salty snacks in 5,000 stores across the country. In 2010, he joined Cava part time to do the same for the company’s packaged products.
Later that year, Schulman joined the company full-time as CEO and grew Cava from a single location sit-down restaurant to a 350 location company worth $578.67 million, according to Pitchbook, conservatively earning $450 million in revenue in 2018. Grigoropoulos and Xenohristos remain involved in the company’s concept and culinary decisions but do not hold official executive roles.
“I don’t think any of us expected the company would reach the level it’s at today,” Shulman says. “There certainly wasn’t an expectation that this is where we would eventually be.”
The acquisition of Zoës Kitchen, a competing Mediterranean restaurant with 260 locations in 20 states, is among Schulman’s biggest coups since coming aboard full-time. Cava purchased the public company in an all-cash transaction valued at approximately $300 million in 2018, nearly tripling Cava’s “fast casual” reach beyond that of even Shake Shack.
Cava’s branded dips and spreads are now on the shelves in all 479 Whole Foods Markets in the U.S., up from eight locations when Schulman first joined the company.
Schulman credits Cava’s success to understanding the customer and continuously working to elevate their experience. Data scientists are now on the corporate roster, calculating lessons learned from the newly opened Innovation Kitchen.
“I want to take what we learn from the Innovation Kitchen and apply it to every part of our business, from our [branded dips and spreads], to our Zoës locations and sit-down restaurants,” says Schulman. “We’re excited to see what our customers think.”