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Q&A: Kevin Miles, Zoës Kitchen president

Company changes and challenges to growth during a time of expansion for Zoës

Zoës Kitchen has opened two new restaurants in the past week, bringing the total unit count for the Mediterranean fast-casual concept to 52 locations.

Of those two units, one is a company store in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and the other is a franchised unit in Greenville, S.C. Under the leadership of its new president Kevin Miles, the Birmingham, Ala.-based chain began the year with just over 40 units, and plans to have 60 by the year’s end.

Miles, who joined Zoës in 2009 after working at Luby’s, Pollo Campero and Baja Fresh, succeeded Greg Dollarhyde as president in March. Miles said the concept, which was purchased in 2007 by Brentwood Associates, a Los Angeles-based private-equity firm, is ramping up its franchising program. Zoës has units in 12 states.

Miles spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News at a Plano, Texas, unit built in 2009 about changes at the company, which was founded in 1995 by Zoë Cassimus, a Greek immigrant who wanted to share her homeland’s cuisine.

Tell us about the first nontraditional unit you recently opened in Tuscaloosa.

Being a Birmingham, Ala.-based company, the university [of Alabama] approached us. We already have one store in Tuscaloosa. They did a new add-on to their stadium and were looking to add some local flair and flavor. The Zoës [location] faces outward from the stadium, so the public can use it day-to-day, as well as for those six or seven games a year. On game days we will offer party packs for tailgating needs.

How does this unit compare in size to traditional Zoës stores?

A traditional unit has anywhere from 2,500 to 2,800 square feet. This one is just under 2,000. It has a limited menu during game days and a full menu during other normal days. It has approximately 45 seats inside, and there’s a corridor area inside that we share with the administration.

You’ve been with Zoës since 2009. Can we expect any changes with your leadership?

It’s kind of “stay the course.” When I joined back with Greg [Dollarhyde] in ’09, it was to retool the concept for more dinner growth and make it a little more upscale fast casual, if you will, with plates, silverware, beer and wine. The only thing we are doing differently is looking at more franchising.

What is your split in daypart sales?

We have two. In the older stores, which we call our “vintage model,” it is about 70-30, lunch and dinner. Our new concept is more 60-40. We now have what we consider three dayparts. While the old concept had two — lunch and catering — we now have three, with lunch, catering and dinner.

What percentage of your sales is catering?

In our newer markets, it’s upward of 15 percent of sales.

What other changes are in the newer stores?

We tweaked the menu and kitchen in the newer concept, which can now support grilled items, like our grilled salmon, chicken kabobs and veggie kabobs. That allows the customer to come in and get a heartier dinner item that they may not have at lunch.

What is your franchise/company store ratio?

We have 11 franchised stores and the rest are company-owned [41]. All of our franchisees have two or more stores, and we’ll look at multi-unit franchisees in the future.

What makes you an appealing franchise concept?

I think we are on trend, and we are still a young company. Many franchisees are looking for opportunities with something that is growing successfully and that is not the big franchisor. There’s obviously risk and reward with that, but it’s a way to get in early with territories they really like.

What are Zoës’ best-selling menu items?

The chicken salad sandwich is still very popular, even though it’s not Mediterranean. The salmon and chicken and vegetable kabobs are up there.

Who makes up your demographics?

It includes a lot of females, especially moms on the go. We are seeing more and more men than in the earlier days of the concept. It’s people looking for an option where they can feel good about what they are eating and not feel stuffed or weighted down.

What is your check average?

We’re in that $9.50 range. All of our newer locations that allow it have beer and wine.

What areas are you looking for in expansion?

It’s the Southeast, which is a little broad for us. We just opened one in Phoenix. But our focus is from Dallas to D.C. through that Southeastern corridor. That’s our home base and a little more hub-and-spoke. We still have a lot of territory to penetrate to become a bigger regional brand.

What is the brand’s biggest challenge to growth?

Real estate. That’s especially for A-plus real estate. With the economy the way it was, developers stopped developing new dirt, so we are sitting here with not a lot of inventory. Those concepts that weathered the economic storm are entrenched in their markets, but there isn’t a whole lot of location-location-location as we look. We are turning over a lot of rocks. There’s a little bit of new stuff coming on, but not a lot.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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