Watch out casual-dining chains, Cava is coming for your guests

The Mediterranean fast casual is planning to enhance restaurant ambiance to make locations more inviting for dine-in. Also steak is coming to the menu.
Cava unit
Cava has also launched a multi-year journey to make kitchens operate more efficiently, tapping AI and data to better predict prepping needs, cooking and scheduling. |Photo: Shutterstock.

The demise of the restaurant dining room is greatly exaggerated, contends Cava Group Inc. Co-founder and CEO Brett Schulman.

Following the company’s report on a stellar first year as a public company, Cava this year is making some investments in both the dining room environment and kitchen operations as the chain settles into more normalized long-term growth.

The company this year has launched what has been dubbed Project Soul, which is a test of various models to make restaurants more inviting as a place to meet a friend for a meal, for example, softening the ambiance with things like bolsters on booths, more plants and warmer colors.

While the fast-casual space more broadly has long been the bridge between quick-service and full-service, many of Cava's fast-casual competitors are investing more in building off-premise channels, leaning into the convenience factor.

Cava is doing that too. But with more than 60% of guests ordering in stores, Schulman believes there’s more of an opportunity to capture guests frustrated by rising prices in the casual-dining segment who still want to eat out.

“Full service as a format continues to struggle to deliver a great value proposition to the modern consumer,” he said. “That’s an opportunity in the fast-casual space to gain more of those occasions.”

At the same time, Cava is also looking to build on the 36% of sales coming from digital and delivery channels.

The company is testing various approaches to catering, for example, and that test will expand to eight units this year. Cava also has 31 digital-order drive-thru lanes among its 309 units. With a goal of reaching 1,000 units by 2032, Schulman said roughly one-third of those will have drive-thrus.

 It's all about giving guests options, he said.

“We know the modern consumer wants that channel optionality,” said Schulman. “But what they want to eat on a Tuesday afternoon might be very different from what they eat on a Saturday evening.”

Adding steak to the menu may also be a draw. The chain has been testing a Mediterranean take on steak in Dallas and Boston, and Schulman said they plan to roll it out in the second half of the year systemwide.

“It’s rich but not heavy and it features the great brightness of sun-dried tomato, herby oregano and a little touch of red chili,” he said.

Meanwhile, Cava in the first quarter also launched the Connected Kitchen Initiative, which uses artificial intelligence and data to better forecast what restaurants should prep, batch cook and schedule. Schulman described the initiative as a multi-year journey.

“It’s a more sophisticated way of doing what we do now, where you’re taking real-time sales data, whether camera vision, data from in-restaurant or digital-sales channels, historical data, weather data and event data, to automate suggested prep, giving the team guidance for what they should be cooking by the day or by the hour,” said Schulman. “We take that complexity out of their hands so they can focus on making great food and hospitality.”

Cava is also expanding its test of a new loyalty program, which Schulman said will ultimately allow the chain to engage on a personal level with members.

In November, Cava shifted its existing loyalty program away from a “spend X, get Y” plan to one where points can be banked.

The company last year launched the test of a more-enhanced loyalty program in Houston that creates different types of rewards and challenges, and that test is expanding to restaurants in the Carolinas this year, Schulman said. The chain hopes to roll out the new loyalty program systemwide at the end of 2024.

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