The Country Is Going Crazy (feta) for a Favorite DC Restaurant

WASHINGTON — In August, New Yorkers got a taste of what D.C.’s been devouring for years — well, they did if they could stand the wait.

Cava Grill opened its first New York outpost in Manhattan’s Union Square neighborhood to a line that went out the door and down the sidewalk.

A photo posted by Nikki Rappaport (@nikkirap) on Aug 25, 2016 at 10:24am PDT

“We had a lot of built-in fans emailing us and contacting us, ‘When are you going to open in New York?’ said Cava CEO Brett Schulman. “It was helpful to have those evangelists there to start and give us a good kickstart in the market.”

Ten years ago, the Cava brand encompassed one small restaurant in a strip mall in Rockville, Maryland. With maxed out credit cards and carpentry help from family members, childhood friends Ike Grigoropoulos, Dimitri Moshovitis and Ted Xenohristos opened Cava Mezze, where they put a modern American spin on the traditional Greek dishes they grew up eating.

Three years later, they opened a second location in Capitol Hill, followed by a third in Arlington, Virginia, and launched a line of dips and spreads at Whole Foods Market. But it wasn’t until 2011 when things really took off. That’s when the three business partners and Schulman launched their spinoff, Cava Grill.

The fast-casual concept serves customizable Mediterranean pitas, salads and bowls, filled with ingredients such as braised lamb, falafel, harissa, tzatziki and an array of fresh vegetables, many of which are sourced from local farms.

Cava Grill has expanded to a total of 28 announced locations in just five years — including five in D.C., five in Maryland, 11 in Virginia, six in California and one in New York — and has raised more than $60 million in venture funding.

What’s made Cava so successful, both in D.C. and across the country? Schulman says the company hasn’t lost sight of its original vision.

“It’s been true to the organic nature of what Ted, Ike and Dimitri started a decade ago,” he said. “It’s just a great entrepreneurial story and we’ve always tried to communicate that through everything we do at Cava.”

It’s one thing to grow in and around D.C., but bringing a concept to a new state — and a new coast — requires more than scouting out a killer location.

With its recent cross-country expansion, Schulman says one of the biggest tasks was finding local farmers and producers to supply the new restaurants.

“That’s the opportunity for us to really curate a quality product and ingredient and have that connection to know how it’s grown, where it’s grown, who’s growing it or who’s raising the animals,” he said.

For the New York store, Cava partnered with farms on Long Island and in New Jersey, as well as a bakery in Brooklyn to provide its featured cookie. In California, it’s a farm north of San Francisco and a Los Angeles-based baker.

Cava has made headlines for more than its expansion over the years. This summer, it raised the minimum wage for its employees to $13 an hour and offered paid sick and parental leave to hundreds of hourly employees, The Washington Post reports.

Schulman says making sure the company’s employees are supported both inside and outside the restaurant’s four walls cultivates leadership within the company.

“To have a strong culture we need strong teams, and these are the folks who are helping to drive our success on the front lines, serving and cooking our food every day, and we want to make sure that they’re empowered,” he said.

So far, the D.C. startup has received a warm welcome in its two new markets. New York outlet Gothamist wrote, “When obsessed-over chains from other parts of the nation try to put down roots here in New York City, results are mixed … but this one feels like a keeper.”

LA Eater called Cava an “unstoppable healthy-eating fast casual chain.”

And Cava has no plans to slow down. Schulman predicts this time next year, the total number of locations will be closer to 40.

“I don’t know what any of us thought it would get the momentum and grow as quickly as it did, so it’s been a fun journey,” he said.

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