This post is part of the Reporter’s Notebook blog.
At a time when restaurant chains are struggling to tamp down rising labor costs, Cava Mezze Grill is investing heavily in worker pay and benefits.
Employees at the 16-unit fast-casual chain got a significant pay raise last month, on top of a generous benefits package not commonly found in the restaurant industry.
Beginning in July, the starting hourly pay at Cava Mezze Grill increased to $13 per hour across all markets, from a previous average of about $11. The Washington, D.C.-based chain has locations in that area, as well as Los Angeles and, soon, New York City.
By the end of the year, the chain expects to have 1,000 employees across five states. In Virginia, for example, workers now make 67-percent more than the state’s minimum wage of $7.75 per hour.
Although the minimum wage is scheduled to climb in stages to $15 per hour in the three major markets where Cava Mezze Grill operates, CEO Brett Schulman said the company decided to increase pay sooner across all markets for a number of reasons.
Schulman says that the workforce landscape across the U.S. has changed dramatically. Since 2000, the country has lost about 5 million manufacturing jobs. Many of those workers were forced to transition to service jobs, like restaurants.
That has pushed the average age of restaurant workers higher, and now many are heads of households, struggling to support families. Because those workers’ needs have evolved, so must Cava Mezze Grill’s efforts to meet those needs, Schulman said.
Attracting and retaining top talent is also a priority. Schulman said the move supports the chain’s fundamental goal of creating a culture of food and service excellence.
“We like to say a happy team equals happy customers equals a happy business,” he said.
In January, the company rolled out paid sick leave for hourly workers, as well as paid parental leave and even paid community leave. The latter gives workers a chance to take time off work for philanthropic commitments.
In addition, Cava Mezze Grill is offering video-based life skills training on topics like personal finance and budgeting, conflict resolution, public speaking, and health and wellness. Hourly workers are eligible to participate in a 401K after one year of service, with the company offering a certain match in percentage.
Cava Mezze Grill even offers pet insurance benefits to workers.
“It may sound trivial, but it’s one of the most adopted benefits,” Schulman said. “It’s real savings for people and puts money back in their pockets when they have a pet and have to take them to the vet.”
Cava Mezze Grill workers also get a free meal every shift, which Schulman estimates saves workers about $2,000 per year that might have been spent elsewhere. They also get 50 percent off their meals whenever they dine at Cava Mezze Grill while not on shift, as do family members with them.
Although he declined to quantify how the pay and benefits increases would impact labor costs at the chain, Schulman said, “It’s an investment that we believe will drive growth.”
The chain’s first unit in New York City is scheduled to open this month, and five more restaurants are scheduled to open in the D.C. area this year. Two new units are also planned for Southern California in 2016.
By the end of the year, Schulman expects the chain to have 24 units, all company owned. Next year the plan is to add another 15 restaurants.
Cava Mezze Grill is the fast-casual version of a full-service, Greek-influenced Mediterranean concept in Washington, D.C., called Cava Mezze. The company also makes sauces and spreads that are sold in Whole Foods grocery stores, which has helped build brand awareness, Schulman said.
This fall the chain plans to launch a new version of its existing mobile app that will allow users to order and pay ahead. It will be tied to a loyalty program. Cava Mezze Grill is also partnering with Postmates to offer delivery.
Of course, the company will continue to tweak its pay and benefits package as the minimum wage climbs across the country, Schulman said.
“The minimum is not what we stand for,” he said. “It’s something we’ll constantly revisit.”
As Cava Mezze Grill grows, Schulman is determined to position the brand as a positive force in the world, not only with its made-from-scratch, healthful menu, but as a business.
In an essay on the company’s website, Schulman wrote: “We believe our food is a force for good — for our team members and for our customers — and that force is accelerating.”