Siga siga. The Greek phrase means “slowly slowly,” and that’s how three childhood friends developed their idea for a restaurant.
Ted Xenohristos, Ike Grigoropoulos and Dimitri Moshovitis are all children of Greek immigrants who grew up in Montgomery County. They attended the same church—St. George on Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda—and played on the same basketball teams.
By 2005, Ted, now 36, and Ike, now 33, had finished college and were waiting tables at Olazzo, an Italian restaurant in Bethesda, to pay the bills. Dimitri, 35, who had dropped out of high school to become a chef, was cooking at the Tel Aviv Café, just around the corner. After their lunchtime shifts ended, the three pals would hang out, sharing coffee and dreams.
“We talked about this for a good year or two,” Ted says. “Why don’t we open a restaurant that serves little mezze, small plates, like they do in Greece? All the restaurants in this area serve these big plates; we’d never seen that in Greece. What country did they come from? Why can’t it be different?”
In another way they didn’t want to be different at all. The secret sauce in Greek cooking is not hollandaise but homeyness. The mood is as important as the menu. As the guys like to say, “Food is culture.”
Since I lived in Greece for almost four years, I know what they’re talking about. Their model is the Greek “taverna,” an informal neighborhood place rooted in family and community.
In those tavernas that I knew and loved, one relative would supply the olive oil from his home village, another would bring the wine from his wife’s brother’s vineyard. Cousins would serve the food and sweep the floors. A grandmother, or yaya, would bake the baklava and control the cash register. And when you walked through the door, you were greeted by name.
The friends loved that tradition as well, and wanted to re-create it in America. But to their immigrant parents, their idea smacked of the Old World, not the New. The elders wanted their children stepping forward, not back.
“They helped pay for college and I had an accounting degree,” Ike says. “They were like, ‘You can work in a 9-to-5 job. You can get your health insurance paid for. What are you doing?’ ”
When the older generation first came to America, they washed dishes and waited tables. Eventually they owned construction companies and restaurants, but they always worked with their hands. Ike’s father cleaned bathrooms in his taco joint until his son was in college.
Their children were supposed to do better. To be professionals. That was the immigrant dream. “They were just disappointed that we didn’t do something beyond the restaurant business,” Ted says.
Not only that, “they thought we were little American kids,” Ted adds. Too soft, too privileged. They kept asking their sons: “Are you going to work hard enough to run your own business?”
The answer was yes. The pals found a Russian bakery that had gone bust in Rockville’s Traville Village Center. They maxed out credit cards and ripped up floors. Ted used an acid so powerful to scrub the place clean that he “was coughing up blood.”
We’re sitting at one of the tables the guys made for $4 apiece as they tell me their story. Their dads built the bar. Dimitri’s mom made the curtains. They bought the chairs on sale at Target. They catered an event at their church and won a Jeep in a raffle and sold it for $20,000 to pay their bills. Still, an uncle had to buy them a refrigerator so they could pass inspection.
Cava Mezze opened in November 2006 with Dimitri in the kitchen, Ted waiting tables and Ike tending bar. Their first two customers looked at the menu and said, “We don’t want small plates, we want big plates. Full dinners.”
Ted raced to the kitchen. The partners consulted. We’ve talked about this for years. No big plates. Let’s just stick to our guns, they decided.
Ted delivered the news. The couple got up and left. “You should have seen our faces,” Dimitri recalls. “We were like, defeated.”
The customers who stayed presented other problems. Since the owners couldn’t afford a computer, the waiters wrote orders on little Post-it notes.
“When we put them up in the kitchen, the heat would melt the glue, so all the tickets were falling everywhere,” Ted recalls. “We were all on the kitchen floor, all three of us, trying to find the tickets. We ended up giving half the food away because we were screwing up orders.”
Siga siga—slowly slowly—business picked up. Some regulars would stay late, drink steadily and start dancing on the bar. Heel marks are still visible from some particularly vigorous moves.
“We’d sleep here sometimes,” Ted says. “Half the time we were exhausted, and half the time it was because we were too drunk to drive home.”
Those days are over. Much has changed since they wrote orders on Post-it notes and slept on two chairs pushed together. The menu for one thing. The partners now import their own wine, olive oil and cheese from Greece, but Dimitri likes to blend traditional ingredients with sharper, stronger flavors.
Take “crazy feta,” a tangy mixture of a crumbly Greek cheese made from sheep’s milk, and jalapenos, which aren’t native to Greece at all. Today, Dimitri describes his food as “Greek inspired,” and his approach is really a metaphor for the whole immigrant experience. Take a custom from the old country and add a fresh accent that creates something new. Something American.
The partners have also cultivated local suppliers. Scallops come exclusively from a father-son team based in New Bedford, Mass. After Hurricane Sandy wrecked their boat, scallops were off the menu for months until the Cava guys could help the fishermen finance repairs.
They need a lot of scallops these days. There are now three full-service restaurants and five Cava Mezze Grills providing quicker, cheaper meals. The first grill was located on Bethesda Avenue in 2011 specifically to commemorate those midday conversations, years ago, that incubated the original idea.
A line of dips and spreads is sold in Whole Foods Markets as far west as Ohio, and once the partners install new equipment that prolongs shelf life without artificial preservatives, their brand will go national.
The Cava guys know that rapid expansion could blemish that brand. So only friends and relatives are hired as managers. And then there’s the baklava. Every piece is still made by Dimitri’s mother. How’s that for quality control?
Steve Roberts, who teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University, was based in Athens for The New York Times in the mid-’70s. Send ideas for future columns to firstname.lastname@example.org.