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Twelve years ago, a group of three friends from Rockville took a chance. With the goal of honoring their Greek heritage, in 2006 Dimitri Moshovitis, Ike Grigoropoulos, and Ted Xenohristos opened Cava Mezze, a traditional, small-plate Mediterranean restaurant, in Rockville. The full-service restaurant eventually spawned a fast-casual concept that in 2018 is simply called CAVA.
CAVA has eight locations in D.C. proper and 56 locations across the country. There’s not a single weekday that goes by without Washingtonians lining up out the door for a pita or bowl from CAVA, quickly and conveniently crafted with greens, grains, dips, and various proteins. It’s become a phenomenon and source of hometown pride that’s attracted millions of dollars in investments. (As of March 2017, they had fundraised $90 million.)
“We view ourselves as modern interpreters of our traditional roots, with family partners that we source ingredients from in Greece,” says CAVA CEO Brett Schulman, who is busy opening the latest CAVA location in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Ever since CAVA exploded onto the D.C. food scene, several other notable Greek fast-casual eateries have come to dominate the District. Roti Modern Mediterranean offers rice plates and pita salads with the promise of “food that loves you back,” while grk Fresh Greek serves a rotating seasonal menu along with gyros and pitas. Combined, the two chains have nine locations in D.C.
When a cultural food becomes a phenomenon that gets replicated, modernized, and mass-produced, the question of authenticity arises. How true can a fast-casual behemoth stay to the cuisine’s origins? And, what do D.C.’s long-standing traditional restaurants, including Greek Deli and Catering, The Greek Spot, and Zorba’s Cafe think of CAVA’s meteoric rise?
Rather than harbor bitter sentiments towards CAVA and other chains, both Greek Deli and Catering and The Greek Spot credit the chains for nailing a successful business formula, and are personally familiar with CAVA’s founders.
It’s been almost 29 years since Kostas Fostieris converted a traditional sandwich deli on 19th Street NW into a Grecian labor of love. In his time there, Fostieris confidently says he can recognize over a thousand customer’s faces.
“You come in here once, I’ll ask your name,” says Fostieris. “You come in here twice, I’ll have your order ready before you reach the counter.” Seated at the one of his few available tables, it’s 3:30 p.m. and the CLOSED sign has been turned around on the restaurant’s door, despite the posted closing time of 4 p.m.
“I ran out of food today starting at 2:30,” Fostieris says. “Not bad. You should’ve seen the line—it’s out the door, always.” Every day, Fostieris wakes up as early as 3 a.m. to begin his labor of love. Everything he sells, between the famous avgolemono soup, warm slices of baklava, or a classic gyro pita, is made from scratch.
When asked which ingredients he sources from Greece, he laughs and swings his arms around, showcasing the cans of tomatoes, the refrigerated phyllo dough, the bundles of pasta. With a shrug, he answers with a smile, “Almost everything.”
Greek Deli and Catering has been a beloved D.C. establishment since 1990. Signed posters of presidents line the wall, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama. In one corner hides a photo ofDonald Trumpand Mike Pence. For many Greeks who live in D.C. and the surrounding area, Greek Deli and Catering is a trip back home.
“Five, ten years ago, there were a few places to eat, a steakhouse maybe,” Fostieris says. “Now you can’t walk two feet without a restaurant. But me? I’ve always been here.” Fostieris cooks only what he plans to sell that day. While he offers catering, large orders must be called ahead, otherwise you’re out of luck. He refuses to serve frozen food.
When asked about chains such as CAVA, Fostieris recognizes their success. “They have the right formula, but it’s much different from what I do. I remember when [CAVA] first started, it was a small group,” he says. “Now it’s everywhere.”
The Greek Spot shares a few things in common with Greek Deli. The family-owned carryout is located off U Street NW. Late owner Gregory Kavadias started in the business back in 2005 and died in 2017. In his absence, current owner Kosta Dionisopoulos is keeping the place going strong. He originally became involved with the restaurant through meeting his wife, Marina, the niece of Kavadais, when he was delivering produce.
“We’re working here [at The Greek Spot] to keep our family’s history alive and authentic by giving our customers the traditional, Greek diner experience,” Dionisopoulos says. The Greek Spot offers spanakopita, fried calamari, and various gyro sandwiches. Dionisopoulos is close to CAVA’s founders, and stressed it’s been a collaborative, loving effort from CAVA to grow the business and remain close with smaller Greek establishments.
“We’re all first-generation Americans with tight roots to Greece, we all see each other at church each Sunday, and there’s nothing but support from us,” says Dionisopoulos. “They take what we do, which is a love for authentic, Greek ingredients, and make it fast-casual, and it’s been a success.”
Not all of D.C.’s storied Greek restaurants were as effusive in their praise about CAVA’s success. Despite requests, Zorba’s Cafe, which opened in 1984, refused to comment.
CAVA has at least 14 more locations on the way.
This story has been corrected. Late owner of The Greek Spot is named Gregory Kavadias, not Gabriel Kavadais, and Marinana is spelled Marina.