Avli is admittedly more of a veteran brand, having first opened outside of Chicago in 2009. But the restaurant, which was inspired by founder Louie Alexakis’ experience working for his father-in-law’s concept, Greek Islands, didn’t begin expanding until 2018, when it had gained enough traction for Alexakis to open a spinoff, Avli Taverna.
There are now five Avli restaurants, including one in Milwaukee, as well as a fast-casual concept inside the food hall Time Out Market Chicago. Now Alexakis is ready for much more, including two set to open in the next several months. The first will be a quick-service iteration of Avli, while the second will be focused on tapas. They will be located next to each other in Chicago’s Fulton Market district.
“It’s taken us a couple of years to get the right team together, but we’ve done it and we’re ready to expand our business,” he said.
Notably, this expansion won’t be a bunch of Avli restaurants cut from the same template. That defeats the entire purpose of the brand’s very creation: “Making something Greek, but a little more inspired,” as Alexakis explains. He points to the diversity of Greek cuisine as an inspiration.
“Greek has that enormity, and nobody has explored that,” he said. “I want to expose people to the fact that Greek food is diverse because of its location and history.”
Armed with this inspiration, Avli’s menus vary from location to location and will continue to do so as the concept grows. Its River North location in Chicago, for example, features more sandwiches and portable dishes because most of the clientele is between 25 and 35 and on the go. All the menus are focused on meeting consumers’ growing demand for Greek-inspired, healthy, chef-produced cuisine. This demand is why Alexakis has his sights set well beyond the next two restaurants and on something bigger, including a potential national footprint.
“I don’t think we’re being bullish. We’re realizing, instead, that we’re best suited for this kind of world right now,” he said. “We’re not a very expensive restaurant, we have really friendly service — think of it as the Greek version of ‘Cheers’ — and we offer high-quality, scratch-made food that is hard to make at home.”
For its expansion, Avli is targeting smaller cities, like Milwaukee, Nashville, Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta, and Austin, Texas — what Alexakis calls “hot restaurant markets” with demographics that are likely to respond well to this cuisine.
Notably, Avli’s growth will come from more than just new restaurant locations. The company also has its sights on a bigger retail presence (the concept’s Greek meals and wines are sold at local grocers throughout Chicago), as well as a new partnership with American Airlines in which Avli provides meals on select flights to Europe. Further, the company offers “Avli Travel Guides,” a resource with curated itineraries for those vacationing in Greece. The company also acquired a banquet business last year and offers catering and private events.
It's a comprehensive expansion effort aimed at not only raising brand awareness but also ensuring “Avli” is synonymous with all things Greek. Alexakis makes a point to note, however, that all of Avli’s growth will be authentic, and not just growth for growth’s sake. Achieving that authenticity is likely to be easier with scale, he said. Avli imports most of its products directly from Greece, for instance, including wine, olive oil, and Feta cheese.
“We’re not just adding more units; we’re adding concepts that are Greek-based and figuring out what venues might best match. Does that mean more supermarkets? Stadiums? College towns or high-density residential areas?” he said. “We’ve reached the point now where we have the team to start doing this seriously. And while we’re doing this, our focus on authenticity isn’t going to change. It’s our reputation.”
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]
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