Operations

Cava is ready to bring its bowls to the Midwest

The Mediterranean fast casual will debut Friday in Chicago, and the chain’s co-founder said it plans to open “a bunch” of restaurants to the Windy City and its suburbs.
Cava Chicago
Cava is opening its first Midwest location, in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood, on Friday. | Photo: Heather Lalley

Mediterranean fast casual Cava is ready to bring its Crazy Feta, hummus, lamb meatballs and more to the Midwest, with the opening Friday of its first Chicago restaurant.

The 3,100-square-foot restaurant, which is surrounded by quick-service stars like Sweetgreen, Tropical Smoothie Café and Crumbl in the city’s Wicker Park neighborhood, will be the first of “a bunch” of planned locations in Chicago and its suburbs, Cava co-founder and Chief Concept Officer Ted Xenohristos said at a media preview of the new location Wednesday.

Cava-Xenohristos

Cava co-founder Ted Xenohristos speaks at a media preview in Chicago. A custom mural that gives a nod to the city is on display behind him. | All photos: Heather Lalley

Debuting in Los Angeles years ago taught the Washington, D.C.-based concept that it can be a struggle to branch out so far from its homebase and that there is strength in numbers, Xenohristos said.

“We learned that entering a market, it was much more helpful to open two or three or four restaurants,” he said. Having more stores in a region boosts supply chain efficiency and opens the door to workers who are more likely to be familiar with the concept, among other perks.

Though Cava representatives declined to reveal much about their Midwest expansion plans, they did disclose that a location at 890 N. Milwaukee Ave. in suburban Vernon Hills, Illinois, is slated to open later this summer.

“Chicago for me is a special place,” Xenohristos said. “There are lots of Greeks here. It’s been a market where the Greek community has been hounding me to open.”

The Chicago Cava, which its 30 seats, is one of just 11 in the 325-unit chain to include a dedicated catering area, with a separate entrance for the larger orders. A second makeline is used for digital orders.

Cava digital menu board

Cava's new Chicago location features a digital menu board and second makeline. 

Consumer understanding of Mediterranean food has evolved considerably since 2006, when the first Cava Mezze (a full-service concept) opened its doors in Rockville, Maryland, and even since the first Cava fast casual debuted five years after that.  

In those days, the restaurant’s T-shirts detailed the pronunciation of now-familiar condiments like “hummus” and “tzatziki.”

Still, though, Cava sees part of its mission to introduce novel flavors amid the familiar ones, with items such as spicy North African harissa and a Balsamic Date vinaigrette that brings some sweetness to the menu.

Though there is a selection of curated bowls and salads (Harissa Avocado is most popular), about 80% of orders are custom creations in which diners can choose from nearly three dozen proteins, vegetables, sauces and more.

Cava bowl

A custom Cava bowl. 

Xenohristos and fellow Cava co-founders Dimitri Moshovitis and Ike Grigoropoulos also run full-service restaurants Melina and Julii in Maryland, with plans to debut Bouboulina in North Bethesda this summer.

Those kitchens sometimes serve as an incubator for Cava creations, Xenohristos said, adding that touches like “real” bowls and silverware, large windows and warm interior finishings are all designed to give Cava more of a full-service feel than some of its fast-casual brethren.

As beverages and beverage-focused concepts like Swig and McDonald’s new spinoff CosMcs gain popularity, Cava offers an impressive selection of housemade juices that have largely flown under the radar. But the offerings, which include Cucumber Mint Lime, Strawberry Citrus, Blueberry Lavender and more are starting to gain traction.

Cava drinks

Cava sells an assortment of housemade drinks. 

Xenohristos said customers like to make their own blends of the self-serve drinks and display their creations on TikTok.

Cava has previously detailed plans for 15% annual unit growth this year and next, saying it sees potential for 1,000 locations nationwide.

The chain went public in June, raising close to $318 million in its initial public offering.

In February, it celebrated a banner year, reporting same-store sales grew 18% during the year, driven by a traffic increase of 10.4%. Revenue during the period grew by nearly 60% to $717.1 million.

Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.

Multimedia

Exclusive Content

Financing

Saladworks-parent WOWorks is shopping for new brands to buy

The platform company is almost finished assimilating its existing six brands. Now it's time to add to the family, said CEO Kelly Roddy.

Financing

2 more reminders that the restaurant business is risky

The Bottom Line: Franchising is no less risky than opening your own restaurant. Just ask former NFL player David Tyree and the former president of McDonald's Mexico.

Marketing

There's plenty happening at the high end of the pricing barbell, too

Reality Check: Decadent meal choices are also proliferating, for a lot more than $5.

Trending

More from our partners