A Mediterranean food chain that people are obsessed with is about to take over America
Washington, DC-based fast-casual chain Cava Grill is expanding its delicious empire.
After raising over $60 million from a venture capital firm backed by AOL co-founder Steve Case in 2015, Cava Grill has net another $30 million in Series C funding, according to the company.
Cava is planning to expand into the greater New York City area, as well as entering the Boston market.
The Mediterranean-focused restaurant has also gained a substantial following with its five outposts in Los Angeles, and there are three new locations in the pipeline for the LA area.
I decided to visit the NYC location to see if the much-hyped chain has what it takes to expand across the country.
The chain's first location in the Big Apple is on a bustling stretch of 4th Avenue at 14th Street, right off of Union Square.
The glass front lets in ample light, making the space feel bright and open. The decor is quintessential fast-casual — blond wood, industrial metals, fluorescent lighting, and cement floors. Chipotle-chic, as it were. It's bright, it's clean, and there's isn't all that much personality.
Taking a page straight out of Fast-Casual 101, Cava Grill's set up is ultimately the same as Chipotle's. You go along the assembly line, picking what you want in your meal — you can choose to have a pita wrap, a grain bowl, a salad, a "greens and grains", mini pitas, or mini pitas and a soup. The prices aren't displayed, but they are in the handout menus you can grab.
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There's an impressive selection of seasonal juices and drinks, including some über-healthy choices like kale apple cucumber ginger lemon — quite the mouthful. Small drinks are $2.75, and larges cost $3.25; they're steep, but not outside the realm of reason.
The local sourcing partners are proudly displayed on the walls — it's great to see where the ingredients are coming from. Every Cava Grill sources locally when possible.
I ordered a pita wrap with chicken, and a grain bowl with saffron basmati rice and spicy lamb meatballs. Plus, for a drink I grabbed a watermelon mint juice.
The juice is seriously refreshing, but lacking in mint. It's more watermelon than mint, and watermelon is a very subtle flavor — the mint is supposed to give it some aromatic coolness to it, but it's really just watermelon. Still, watermelon juice alone is great so who am I to complain?
The pita is pretty hefty, stuffed to the brim with the fillings chosen: grilled chicken, hot harissa dip, eggplant and red pepper spread, shredded romaine lettuce, cauliflower quinoa tabbouleh, tomatoes, cucumbers, and crumbled feta. It's a lot.
Just looking at it, I'm impressed. It's huge, and the veggies look brilliant, vibrant, and fresh. And the smell of hot grilled chicken — with that ever-so-perfect hint of the slightest char — wafting up is mouthwatering. There's a lot of chicken in it, and it's tender and juicy — perfectly grilled and seasoned. In fact, the staff were rather generous with the all the fillings for the pita, adding plenty of feta, tomatoes, and harissa.
And boy, as far as taste goes, it delivers. The harissa, a spicy North African paste, has an ample amount of heat but with the rich flavor to match. The crumbled feta adds a salty but smooth counterpoint to the heat, with the tomatoes and lettuce bringing a refreshing and juicy crispness to each bite. The pita is thick, pliant, and holds together well.
Considering all the choices available, this is a great deal for $8.95. It's filling, cheap, and satisfying.
The grain bowl — $9.87, with the choice of saffron basmati rice, brown rice, or black lentils — is packed with deliciousness. I opted for hummus, eggplant and red pepper spread, spicy lamb meatballs (an extra $1.75), tomatoes, onions, olives, and feta, all drizzled with a cool yogurt dill sauce.
I'm skeptical of the saffron rice. It's fine, but it's pale and "meh" in terms of flavor — I doubt there's much saffron in it. Where are the comforting, deep yellows and the warm aromatics? Luckily, the toppings are more than enough to make up for that.
The spicy lamb meatballs have no spice to them and the portions were inconsistent. The first time I went I got four scooped into my bowl and the second time I went I got 5 and a half.
This bowl had a blessedly bountiful amount of juicy, vibrant grape tomatoes that tasted fresh off the vine, and a veritable grove full of briny Kalamata olives. On my second visit, I received a five-tomato snub and a sum of olives that I could easily count on two hands.
Let's take a look at this tomato — this beautiful, scarlet gem; this seductive ruby red sphere of seeds and juice with a taste that makes you exclaim, "Who knew simply eating healthily could feel so good!" Yeah, that good. So of course you'd want a fair amount — not five. I'll be optimistic and chalk it up to staff getting used to things, as the place just opened.
If you choose to eat in, you're given a real bowl and silverware — forget Chipotle's foil containers. If you order to-go, you get the usual container and lid, which I've noticed does not stay warm well. Within an eight minute walk, my food had become tepid at best.
Having opened at the beginning of the month, the spot seemed surprisingly busy even at 3pm, past the peak lunch rush. There was no waiting time then, but expect a good wait from noon to 1pm on a weekday.
If similar DC-import Sweetgreen's runaway success in NYC is any indication, Cava Grill should have no issues breaking into the city's market. Mediterranean cuisine is already the darling of health-foodies everywhere, not to mention its perfect positioning of both accessible and "exotic". This means easy inroads to the NYC demographic. The food is fresh and tasty, and as long as the serving size consistency is addressed, the road to expansion looks clear for the chain.
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