Cava to open fast-casual grill in Bethesda

By Danielle Douglas
Monday, August 16, 2010

Barely a month after announcing a new location in Clarendon, owners of the Greek restaurant Cava have signed on to open their first fast-casual dining location, Cava Grill, along Bethesda Row. The restaurant is leasing 1,943 square feet of space at 4832 Bethesda Ave., according to Dimitri Georgelakos of KLNB Retail, who brokered the deal.

When it opens in early December, Cava Grill will feature an assembly line setup, allowing patrons to pick and choose what they want on their souvlaki and pita sandwiches, similar to the way Chipotle operates with its Mexican offerings. Owners Dimitri Moschovitis, Ted Xenohristos and Ike Grigoropoulos got the idea after noticing a trend of customers asking for lunch specials at dinnertime.

"With that demand, it made sense to open it up so that people could have all of the different options and get them really fast," explained Xenohristos. Meals at Cava Grill, he noted, will be priced a bit lower than at the Cava restaurant, where dishes average $14. Xenohristos expects to hire 25 employees at the eatery, and is currently scouting sites in the District for two more Cava Grills.

Cheap eats have been popular during the downturn. Sales at the top 100 fast-casual chains reached $17.5 billion in 2009, a 4.5 percent increase over 2008, according to Technomic, a research and consulting firm.

"Part of the appeal and growing strength of the segment overall relates to it being essentially a hybrid," said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association. Fast-casual restaurants, he explained, employ the speed and convenience of the "quick service" sector, while offering the decor and cuisine associated with "higher-check, table service" restaurants.

"People are looking for more of a refined, healthy product for a great price," said Xenohristos. "They are willing to spend a little more, if they are going to get a better product in a nice environment." The move into fast-casual dining complements Cava's recent launch of its line of dips at Whole Foods and other health-conscious grocery stores, including Mom's Organic Market.

Riehle said a growing number of restaurant operators are diversifying their portfolios. An example is New Orleans-based Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, which operates four different kinds of restaurants. "It makes perfect sense that as operators expand that they develop concepts, which are directed towards different demographic, geographic and service styles," Riehle said.

Having a spoon in so many pots could undermine the brand. But Xenohristos is confident that he and his team will be able to manage quality control at the restaurants and the grills to uphold the Cava cache. For the grill, he said, "We want to emulate what Chipotle has done. They just reached their thousandth store, and I don't think you can tell the difference from number one to the 1,000th. They are very consistent."

Xenohristos and his childhood friends brought the small plate, or mezze, dining that they grew up on to Rockville in 2006. The Silver Spring natives eventually branched out to Capitol Hill's Barracks Row neighborhood. Xenohristos said that once the Clarendon restaurant opens in the next seven months, he and his team will strictly focus on expanding the new concept.

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