B ack in 2006, Ted Xenohristos had no money, terrible credit and zero knowledge about the intricacies of kitchen equipment—something he realized when trying to tear out a bakers’ oven without first turning off the electricity.
But he wanted to start a restaurant.
To hear Xenohristos tell it now, he and childhood friends Ike Grigoropoulos and Dimitri Moshovitis stumbled their way into business in their mid-20s, armed with little more than their experience working in local restaurants. (Xenohristos and Grigoropoulos were waiters at Olazzo in Bethesda; Moshovitis, who has a degree from Baltimore’s International Culinary College, was a chef at Tel Aviv Cafe in Bethesda.)
They established their first restaurant, Cava Mezze, in an old storefront in Rockville using a $30,000 loan from Fidelity Bank & Trust, now part of Eagle Bank.
“I’m sure every businessperson would cringe when they hear about how we started,” Xenohristos said. “We did every single thing we weren’t supposed to do: We maxed out all of our credit cards. We borrowed money from family. We ended up having to foreclose on our condos to put money back into the restaurant.”
Eight years later, it seems to have paid off.
Cava Mezze and its fast-casual spin-off, Cava Mezze Grill, have become a nearly $30-million-dollar-a-year enterprise with 300 employees and a number of packaged dips that are sold at grocery stores along the East Coast.
The Rockville-based company — which has three full-service restaurants and five fast-casual locations — is expanding, too, with plans to nearly double its presence by next summer.
Six new Cava restaurants are in the works, including locations set to open in October in Chinatown, Kentlands and Montgomery Mall. Three more in Fairfax, Ashburn and Baltimore are scheduled to debut early next year.
The first Cava Mezze was furnished with $30 chairs from Target, second-hand kitchen equipment and plywood tables the founders built themselves for $4 a pop. Xenohristos, who temporarily sold windows and siding, fashioned a fake brick wall out of fiberglass siding for about $400. It is still part of the restaurant today.
There had been no money left for computer software, so employees relied on a system of Post-it notes to relay customers’ orders to the cooks. Waiters wrote down each item on individual notes that they then delivered to different hot and cold stations.
“With mezze and small plates, you had 20, 30 plates sometimes,” Xenohristos said. “We’d be sitting in the back scribbling away.”
The system worked for two days, until the kitchen got overheated, melting the adhesive on the Post-Its and sending scraps of paper flying all over.
“The next thing you know, we’re all on our hands and knees trying to pick up these Post-its,” Xenohristos said. “We had no idea what had been made already and what hadn’t. We ended up just giving people lots of food for free.”
He estimates the restaurant gave out $10,000 worth of free food to cover its missteps — but customers left happy.
“That night we did $3,000 in business,” Xenohristos said. “We sat around in a circle afterward and were like, ‘That’s definitely going to be the record. We’ll never beat that.’”
It wasn’t long before customers began asking for hummus and harissa by the pound. In 2008, Cava expanded its operations and began selling packaged dips to local Whole Foods and Roots Market locations — but even that was a haphazard undertaking.
Every night around midnight, after the restaurant had been closed and cleaned, employees set up a makeshift assembly line on the restaurant bar: One person scooped dip into containers, another popped on the lid, a third affixed a plastic seal to the lid.
“And then the next two guys had blow driers so they could melt the seal in place,” Xenohristos said.
By 5 a.m., the dips would be packaged for delivery. It wasn’t a sustainable system — nor was it successful at first.
“For every dip we sold, three or four of them went bad,” Xenohristos said. “On top of that, we were exhausted.”
To fix matters, the trio brought on a fourth partner: Brett Schulman, a former investment banker who had helped his wife start snack company Snikiddy. It was Schulman who helped hone plans for the fast-casual model that would later become Cava Mezze Grill.
“Almost right away, we started talking about taking components of both our Whole Foods business and our restaurant, and putting them together for a fast-casual concept,” Schulman said.
They spent about a year figuring out how to adapt the restaurant’s menu, coming up with new sandwich and salad options. The company raised $2.65 million from family and friends and opened Cava Mezze Grill in Bethesda in 2011. Four new restaurants, including locations in Tysons Corner and Columbia Heights, followed in 2012.
Today, Cava Mezze Grill is the fastest-growing part of the company. Schulman said he expects fast-casual revenue to grow 30 percent this year.
The company continues to scout locations in the Washington area. One of its earliest plans had been to expand into Dupont Circle, but after years of searching, Xenohristos says he and his team have yet to find an appropriate space.
“We are very particular about our locations — we don’t want to be just an office worker option,” Xenohristos said. “We want to be an option for singles, couples, families, for lunches, evenings and weekends.”