Bethesda Interview: The Cava Guys
The unstoppable creators of Crazy Feta talk about growing up Greek, mistakes they’ve made and the pressures of success
The founders of CAVA are having coffee at their original fast-casual restaurant on Bethesda Row, chatting about the changes to the eatery since it opened in 2011. Ted Xenohristos notes that they’ve added salad bins, Ike Grigoropoulos says the menu has grown, and Executive Chef Dimitri Moshovitis offers details—they started with three proteins and three dressings, and now there are six of each, plus a seasonal roasted vegetable.
Those examples are small potatoes, however, compared to what else has changed. By the end of this year there will be 75 CAVA locations around the country. In August, CAVA Group Inc. announced that it was acquiring Zoës Kitchen, a Mediterranean fast-casual restaurant chain, for about $300 million. Once the deal is finalized in the next few months, the joint companies will have more than 330 restaurants in 24 states and the District.
By any measure, it’s an admirable growth spurt for the first-generation Greek trio, longtime friends who grew up in Montgomery County and whose love of family, food and heritage has fueled their motivation and achievements. Their accomplishments include five CAVA Mezze restaurants, full-service eateries that feature small plates; Sugo Osteria, an Italian restaurant in Potomac; and Julii, a new French-Mediterranean restaurant at Pike & Rose in North Bethesda that was slated to open this fall. The company’s Mediterranean dips and spreads are sold in more than 250 Whole Foods Markets and specialty stores.
As a testament to his culinary and familial roots, Moshovitis still gets together with his mother most mornings to have coffee; they both live in Darnestown. They’ll talk about what she prepared for dinner the night before and what she’s making that day. Angeliki Moshovitis, an avid cook and inspiration to her son, still bakes the baklava for the CAVA Mezze restaurant in Rockville, where Dimitri and his buddies got their start in 2006. The idea for that restaurant, based on the shared plates (mezze) they grew up eating at home and during visits to Greece, was hatched over coffee, too. (Cava, which usually refers to a Spanish sparkling wine, is also a category of prestigious Greek aged blends.)
Before CAVA Mezze became a reality, Moshovitis, now 39, was cooking at Bethesda’s Tel Aviv Café (which has since closed) after dropping out of Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg to go to culinary school in Baltimore; Grigoropoulos, now 38, and Xenohristos, now 40, were both working as waiters at Olazzo in Bethesda. Grigoropoulos, who attended Gaithersburg High School, had graduated from the University of Baltimore with an accounting degree, and Xenohristos, who went to Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville, attended the University of Maryland but did not graduate. The three had known each other since they were kids, connected through a close-knit Greek community and getting together regularly for church activities such as basketball, picnics and dances.
Sitting down with them at the first fast-casual CAVA on Bethesda Avenue, they seem like the same jovial, genuine guys they must have been decades ago. At one point, Ike jokes that he’s the best-looking of the three, and he and Ted (who live in the same Rockville neighborhood) later kid Dimitri for quitting their basketball team to pursue his passion of becoming a chef. “One of the main reasons we’ve been successful is that we remember at the end of the day that we’re friends,” Dimitri says. “We still make fun of each other the same way we made fun of each other when we were younger. We find time to hang out. We go to each other’s houses on the weekends to watch football. I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that we don’t talk to each other. It’s a stressful business, and we try to keep it as fun as possible.”
What were you like as kids?
Ted: We grew up as immigrant kids. I never had a peanut butter and jelly until I got to college. We would go to lunch at school and I’d unpack my spanakopita, and people would be like, ‘Ugh, what’s that smell?’ And I think we kind of bonded over that. We had the same kinds of stories, the same upbringing. I think we were a little bit wild.
Did you get into trouble?
Dimitri: Innocent trouble, compared to what you hear about today. Back then it was like skipping school. I didn’t care much for school. One common thing we had is that we had hardworking parents. I think that made us not get too crazy.
Ike: We also worked a lot. We had jobs from very young ages. We’ve been working in restaurants for as far back as I can remember.
Ted: My mom worked as a waitress at the Tally-Ho Restaurant [in Potomac]. It’s my mom’s sister’s restaurant. She used to drag me there. Even when I was really young [11 years old], on the weekends I’d wash dishes.
I’m sure you all have a lot of food-related memories from when you were growing up. What stands out?
Ike: One big thing for me is Easter. We used to put a lamb on a spit in our [Gaithersburg] neighborhood. As a kid, going to the bus stop the next day was always an adventure. Everyone would talk about it, saying, ‘They had a whole animal on a spit!’ It’s delicious, but people weren’t used to seeing things like that.
Ted: I feel like my whole life revolved around food. Both my parents worked hard, but then my mom would come home and still, every single night, she made dinner. And it wasn’t a frozen dinner. It would be a leg of lamb, potatoes, it wouldn’t just be one thing. Still today, she invites us over and makes like 50 things, when you only really need two. And she always makes enough so that everyone can take home leftovers.
Dimitri: Like Ted said, there’s not anything we do in our lives that food isn’t somehow incorporated into it. Whether it’s a christening of a child, or even a funeral. Everything revolves around food.
I understand that your immigrant parents weren’t eager for you to go into the restaurant business, that they wanted you to be professionals, like accountants. So what do they think now?
Dimitri: I don’t think any immigrant parents come over and think, I can’t wait to work my butt off so my kids can wash dishes. Now, they’re obviously proud of us. I hope.
Ted: Our parents had a short list of what they wanted us to achieve. Number one was marry a Greek girl. Number two was go to school. Number three was become a doctor or lawyer. We’re 0 for 3. I think they’re pretty proud of us. I hope so. I don’t know what else we gotta do.
Ike: My mom cried for two weeks when I told her I was going to open a restaurant with these guys and quit my job. Now she couldn’t be prouder. I think there’s a lot of pride because we’re doing it with Greek food and really showcasing our heritage.