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
Looking back on those early days of CAVA Mezze in Rockville, what were some of the biggest mistakes you made—and what did you learn?
Dimitri: How many pages are you writing?
Ted: We had to learn to operate from a business perspective. We learned that, hey, we paid $10 for these scallops, we should be selling them for $30, not $12. We also learned real quickly that we needed more than one dishwasher. We learned the hard way, because it was us washing dishes.
Dimitri: We were scared. We wanted to please people, to give them a good deal. I think the same thing today. We just do it a little bit differently. We’re smarter.
Ike: I remember bartending for the first two, three weeks. I’d give all the tips to whoever I was working with, just to make sure that they were happy, that they weren’t going to leave. We were so focused on that, and [on] putting out a great product, that everything else was on the back burner.
When the first fast-casual CAVA was opened in 2011, five years later, how much more prepared do you think you were?
Ted: Probably less prepared, in a funny way, because it was so different from what we were doing. Especially on the food side, we learned real quickly that the food was sitting on the line, and we had these deep pans, and it was getting kind of old and mushy.
Dimitri: We just shortened up some of the pans and cooked in smaller quantities. That worked some. But then we had to figure out: When are people coming in? What are they getting? So these are systems that are in place today, but we learned the hard way.
Ike: Brett [Schulman, the CEO of CAVA Group Inc. since 2010] has been focused on this from day one. Collecting data and really analyzing it so that we can understand these things. The goal is to be able to get fresh food and to make sure it tastes the way it’s supposed to taste.
With expansion, there’s always a concern about growth compromising quality. How do you keep on top of that?
Dimitri: From the culinary side, we have a huge team that goes out to the stores. We meet once a week, sometimes twice a week. This week I have three meetings. If there’s an issue that keeps arising, we go back to R&D [research and development] pretty quickly. It could be somebody who sends me a text and says, ‘Hey, I was just in your Columbia store, and everything is great but you should check the seasoning on X, Y, Z.’ If I see that there’s a pattern, hey, there must be something wrong with the recipe that we need to tweak. These things do happen, especially when you’re serving so many people every day. But it’s not as bad as you would think.
Ted: We’re all involved in the R&D. We’re tasting, we’re drinking. We’re currently drinking juices that will go on the menu a year from now. We’re always tasting new ground beef, different vegetables. We’re always seeing how we can improve.
How many employees do you have?
Ike: 2,200, 2,300 employees all together.
Ted: We try to get out to the stores and meet all the store members. We’re doing a GM [general manager] retreat in a couple weeks. Every GM from around the country is flying into D.C.
Ike: I remember our first one, there were like four people.
Dimitri: We also do new store openings, where we go and meet the new team members. We bring them doughnuts, we have a little story time. It’s not only about us. It’s about them, too. How did they come to CAVA? What’s their story?
Ike: It’s one of my favorite things we do.
What kind of employees do you look for?
Ted: We have a whole team of recruiters. We also promote from within, which is something we’ve done from day one. I think with our growth plan—to open 30 stores in 2019, and another 30-something in 2020—everyone sees opportunity. The $13 an hour we went to really helped. People found us. Even in Charlotte [North Carolina], where the minimum wage is maybe 8, 9 bucks, we’re paying $13.
Ike: We also have very strong benefits. We want to be able to hire people who make a career out of this. When we first started, we’d meet people in the restaurant who would be like, ‘Well, I’m doing this for now.’ It was like, ‘Why? Do you not enjoy this?’ A lot of people enjoy it, we enjoy it. We love it.
Dimitri: It’s very satisfying work. It really is. From a kitchen standpoint, there’s camaraderie, you meet so many people from so many different walks of life. You go from working with someone you’ve never met to them being your right hand and knowing every move they make. You can’t find that in a lot of jobs.
Moving on to the acquisition of Zoës Kitchen, tell me why this is a good idea.
Ike: We have a shared heritage. Greek-Americans started Zoës. And they have a great real estate footprint, especially in the South.
So I know there’s a lot of uncertainty over how the purchase—once it goes through—will affect the menus. I actually went to Zoës Kitchen yesterday, and after eating there I feel like you’re going to want to make some changes. [Laughter]
Dimitri: At the end of the day, they have some great things going on, and we have some great things going on. They do some things wrong, and we’re not perfect, either. So I think we take a lot of the stuff they do right and we also learn from them, as well. Like their catering, for instance, is top notch. Our catering is not.
What do you think they might be able to learn from you?
Dimitri: I think just putting a little bit more soul into the food. And I’m speaking strictly from a food perspective. Big flavors, that’s always been our thing at CAVA is big bold flavors. I think bringing some of that, bringing some spice.
So what do you eat at CAVA—and what are the biggest mistakes people make when customizing their meals?
Dimitri: I always pick up a rice bowl with spicy lamb meatballs, harissa, all the veggies. I always add the seasonal toppings and/or dressings to see how the new combinations are working. When we made the menu, and when we develop new items, we make sure that anything you put in the bowl is all in complete harmony with each other. The biggest mistake is not putting enough in your bowl.
Has this amazing business growth changed you?
Dimitri: I think it’s made us more appreciative of what we have. We do have a huge responsibility, not only for the employees, but for our culture and what we stand for. There are certain things that always change when you get bigger, but if the core stuff stays there—don’t compromise on food, don’t compromise on service, treat the team the way the team’s supposed to be treated—I think that’s the base in the winning recipe.
Ted: What’s always driven us [is that] we can’t fail because we can’t let our parents down. They helped us build this restaurant, they came over here, all the way from another country, they busted their butts, they worked construction, waited tables, they did everything they could to give us an opportunity.