Photo courtesy of Zoe's Kitchen / Facebook.

This is good new for fans of fast, healthy, veggie-forward lunch spots.

Zee Krstic
August 22, 2018

Earlier this week, Cava, a smaller chain of Mediterranean fast-casual restaurants largely scattered throughout the Northeast, announced a $300 million merger with Southeastern favorite Zoë's Kitchen, a larger chain known for it's better-for-you Mediterranean meals. If you haven't dined at either chain, the merger could seem like just another tidbit of business news—but this particular purchase has created a new player in the national fast-casual food scene, as Cava now owns and operates 327 locations in 24 states.

The concept of Mediterranean-style food in a fast-casual chain has largely been championed by Zoë's Kitchen, which first opened in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1995—but Mediterranean food has yet to be the signature offering of a chain on a national scale. According to the Washington Post, Cava's merger has propelled the newly formed chain to place within the list of the top 10 fast-casual restaurants by revenue alone—ahead of Danny Meyer's burger joint, Shake Shack.

When the news was shared in Cooking Light offices in Birmingham, a few editors immediately voiced disappointment—Zoës has garnered a bit of a cult-like following, with fans returning for well-made Mediterranean staples. But you shouldn't expect either restaurant to change drastically: As another staff member pointed out, Cava has earned a reputation for being a "Mediterranean Chipotle."

While Cava's business model clearly offers more customization for diners, both chain's feature well-executed Mediterranean meals without the nutritional drawbacks found at other fast-food chains.

Are you a fan of Mediterranean food? Read on:

Interestingly enough, the head executive of the newly formed chain is none other than Ron Shaich, former CEO of Panera Bread. Shaich is responsible for much of Panera's current offerings and its updated look, which leaves industry experts wondering if this new hybrid chain restaurant will be getting a technology-heavy update, too.

In an interview with the Washington Post, current Cava CEO Brett Schulman alluded to the fact that Zoës customers could see a new assembly-line approach to how meals are ordered and served. In fact, there's a chance that Zoës Kitchen could cease to exist altogether—Cava could rebrand the entire chain in its name, or vice versa, Schulman says.

The bottom line: Regardless of branding or business decisions made by executives, it's clear that this merger means that heart-healthy Mediterranean cuisine could be more accessible and available to families across the United States. While there are no plans for expansion currently, Cava and Zoës Kitchen could soon bring staples of the Mediterranean diet to fast-casual restaurants into more areas of the U.S. than ever before.

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