Washington D.C.-based fast-casual restaurant chain Cava was prepared for the pandemic and it’s ready for the economic recession that could soon follow, according to its CEO, Brett Schulman. It’s all part of a carefully laid out plan.
In 2018, Cava acquired Zoës Kitchen, taking the chain from 66 units to over 300 with plans to convert all units to Cavas. Then the pandemic struck, and plans were halted — for a bit.
In 2021, a year of tremendous growth for Cava — with 63 percent unit growth, $168.2 million in same-store sales and 37 percent same-store sales growth — the brand received a round of Series F funding in the amount of $190 million to help convert even more Zoës units to Cava.
“The seeds for our success in 2021 were really planted long before the pandemic,” Schulman said.
Eighty percent of the chain’s restaurants were in the suburbs before the pandemic, a huge advantage when urban business centers shut down in 2020. Where many fast casuals scrambled to pivot to the ’burbs, Cava was already prepared.
The tech-savvy brand that has a team of data scientists on its pay roll found ways to adjust to other consumer changes. That included digital drive-thru pick-up lanes — in development long before the pandemic — and a full make line for digital orders at each Cava location for maximum efficiency.
“As people seek more health and wellness options, they seek greater convenience, but they want to do it without really having to give up anything,” Schulman said.
That’s in both the food they eat and the experience they seek out, two elements that Cava is aiming to hit for consumers.
“One of the things we like to say about Cava is that after you eat it, you don't need a snack or a nap,” Schulman said. “The reason our sales continue to grow is as people try our food, they realize that afterwards, they feel good about what they ate, they feel energized, they feel satisfied.”
The menu includes the reintroduced LTO lemon chicken, a favorite among Schulman’s own children, and a new pita bread in partnership with Damascus Bakery. But Schulman knows the food is solid; Cava’s cofounders are the children of Greek immigrants and know the cuisine like the back of their hand.
“You're really tasting the unique bold-flavored Mediterranean culinary that they grew up with, that their families over in Greece and in the Mediterranean cooked,” he said. “And so we take that idea that you can have these amazing, bold, unique, satisfying flavors, but you can feel good about it. And we make it accessible.”
Accessible or not, the demographics are changing in this country, and that’s something Schulman is both aware of and looking forward to as a Mediterranean concept.
“Forty-seven percent of Gen Z come from an ethnic minority group. That's up from 41 percent of millennials. Gen Alpha will cross the 50 percent paradigm, and clearly we see it in the data as our country gets more diverse, people's palates are broadening,” he said.
One way that the company has been able to access more consumers is through a new partnership at local food stores. Cava has been selling its dips at Whole Foods for years, but recently expanded its offering across the East Coast to include its dressings as well.
“If you choose to have a meal in your own kitchen,” Schulman said, “we can help be a copilot there.”
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