The Untold Truth Of Zoës Kitchen

If you've never been to a Zoës Kitchen, we're here to tell you it's time. With over 250 locations across the United States, Zoës Kitchen isn't hard to find, and it's not a restaurant to miss. If you're craving a quick, healthy meal, Zoës is the place to be. If you're in need of a tasty vegetarian option while your friends eat McDonald's, Zoës is the place to be. If you're looking for a table to gather with friends over shared plates and fresh entrees, Zoës is (say it with us) the place to be. 

Opened by Zoë Cassimus in Birmingham, Alabama, Zoës quickly grew to become the successful franchise it is today. With help from Zoë's entrepreneurial-minded son, Zoës Kitchen went from a brick-and-mortar restaurant to a nationally recognized brand with locations across the country. With Mediterranean specialties like kebabs, Greek salad, and a variety of hummus flavors, it's easy to eat at Zoës no matter your dietary restrictions (or lack thereof).

Zoës Kitchen embraces not just the food, but also the Mediterranean way of life

Zoës Kitchen is known for its fast-casual Mediterranean-style food, but the brand doesn't stop there. According to the Zoës Kitchen website, Mediterranean food is more than just ingredients, flavors, and quality — it's an entire lifestyle based on the food that inspires friends and family to get together and share meals together at the table.

The Mediterranean Dish outlines five basic facets of the Mediterranean lifestyle, beginning with the diet itself, one that's rich in fresh vegetables, grains, and lean protein — and lots of olive oil! The other Mediterranean essentials include spending time with loved ones, staying active (without necessarily putting in hours at the gym), laughing a lot, and embracing simplicity.

Zoës Kitchen wants to create an experience that mimics that of the Mediterranean lifestyle — beaches excluded, unfortunately. Eating at this restaurant will provide you with at least one pillar of the Mediterranean way of life — invite a few friends and you're practically halfway to Greece!

Zoës Kitchen started in Birmingham in 1995 with Zoë Cassimus

Zoë Cassimus, the original Zoë, was born into a family of foodies — her father and cousins both owned restaurants in Birmingham, and her husband, Marcus Cassimus, grew up helping his family at the grocery store they owned. But it was Zoë's mother that inspired the menu for her new restaurant. Born to Greek parents in Birmingham, Cleo Kontos instilled in Zoë, her only child, a hearty appreciation for healthy food and Greek culture (via Southern Foodways Alliance). 

Zoë opened the restaurant at her husband's encouragement after their children had gone off to college. "He just said, 'I think you need to do this and just do it small and just be like a hobby.' Well, we never thought it would do what it did," Zoë said in an interview with the Southern Foodways Alliance. Though Zoë eventually handed the business over to her son, John Cassimus, the restaurant remains true to its familial roots and its dedication to providing people with quick, healthy food.

John Cassimus, son of Zoë, transformed the restaurant from a mom and pop shop to a successful franchise

When Zoë's son John approached her with the idea of opening a second location, she was resistant. "He asked me ... if I wanted to open up another store, and I said, 'No. I'm just not interested.' I mean, I'm in my sixties, and I just don't want to work like when I first started," Zoë told the Southern Foodways Alliance. Zoë urged her son to forget the idea, telling him about how hard she worked when she opened the original restaurant.

"I mean, he never would have gone into it if he thought he was going to work at night and weekends," she said. Sure enough, John's first store was closed at night and on weekends — but thanks to its convenient location, the store found success anyway. From there, John continued to work at transforming and expanding the family business. Thanks to his hard work, Zoës Kitchen now operates 250 locations across the United States, according to AL.

Zoës Kitchen employees are paid better than other fast food workers

In 2016, the CEO of Zoës Kitchen, John Cassimus, appeared as a guest on a CNBC segment called "Squawk Box" to discuss minimum wage with anchor Andrew Ross Sorkin (via AL). Business owners across the country were, at the time, nervous about then-President Obama's support of a $12 minimum wage, claiming that raising wages would decrease company revenue. 

According to Cassimus, Zoës Kitchen was already paying employees well above minimum wage. At $10-12 per hour, most Zoës Kitchen workers were making more than they would at other fast-casual restaurants in the U.S. Cassimus then said that it was fast food chains like McDonald's that would be negatively impacted by an increased federal wage, forcing businesses to charge more for their products. "And then you can't pass it on to the customer because the people that eat at McDonald's and places like that, typically their customer is a less-educated, lower-income customer and you can't pass that [increase] ... on to them," Cassimus said. 

Shortly after the segment aired, Zoës Kitchen released a statement clarifying that Cassimus' involvement with the company had ended several years prior, and his comments really did not reflect the company'ss sentiment.

Zoës Kitchen is one of many restaurants owned by CEO John Cassimus

John Cassimus began expanding his mother's small restaurant in the late 1990s with a few additional locations in and around Birmingham. Though he sold most of his shares of Zoës Kitchen in 2007, he continued to find success in the restaurant industry. According to AL, Cassimus owned a total of nine restaurants: five Maki Fresh stores, two Jinsei Sushi restaurants, and two Miss Dots (a fast casual chicken joint) locations.

Mike Jones, the owner of a houseware retail chain called Mike's Merchandise, one of whose locations Cassimus opened and operated starting in 2018, described Cassimus as an "aggressive entrepreneur" (via AL). Though none of Cassimus' other restaurant endeavors were owned by his family, he put just as much work into helping them succeed. His business savviness and knowledge of the fast-casual dining scene supported him as he continued to take on more and more locations of different companies.

Zoës Kitchen went public in 2014

In 2014, after operating under private ownership for nearly 20 years, Zoës Kitchen went public. According to Reuters, it was valued at $276 million, with an initial public offering of $13-15. Its 5.83 million shares were sold better than expected, at the higher end of the predicted price range. At the time, Brentwood Associates, a private equity firm, owned about 71% of the company, a portion that would drop to 46% after the IPO. Unfortunately, Zoës Kitchen had, at that point, experienced a drop in revenue, causing the company to incur debt; the money from the sale would help pay off that debt. 

"There was no short-term solution that would allow the company to quickly reverse the accelerating negative comparable restaurant sales trends," the restaurant said in an SEC filing reported by Restaurant Business Online. Though many said Zoës Kitchen was undervalued, the company's declining sales forced them to accept the sale regardless.

Zoës Kitchen teamed up with American Airlines for in-flight meals

Airplane food doesn't have a great reputation, but a few years ago, American Airlines and Zoës Kitchen teamed up to change that. In 2018, the two companies launched a partnership designed to offer main cabin flyers healthy meal options to keep them fueled during long trips (via American Airlines Newsroom). "Our customers have asked for lighter tasty food choices," said Janelle Anderson, the Vice President of Global Marketing for American Airlines. "This collaboration with the expert chefs at Zoës provides an innovative, fresh approach to onboard offerings." 

The in-flight options included an egg and turkey bacon breakfast sandwich, a popular Zoës sandwich called the Grüben, a chicken wrap, and a hummus plate served with vegetables and pita bread.

"Together with American, we are excited to elevate the inflight dining experience and deliver goodness to millions of customers by offering our chef-inspired menu items, in a fresh, new way," said the CEO of Zoës Kitchen, Kevin Miles.

Zoës Kitchen prides itself on introducing healthy food to the fast food model

You probably don't often consider fast food healthy, but Zoës Kitchen might get you to change your mind. Zoës Kitchen started as a small restaurant in Birmingham before it expanded to the 250-store institution it is now. But throughout its exponential growth, the restaurant has maintained its status as a healthy spot to eat, full of fresh produce and Mediterranean-style meals. "We've kept what was core to Zoës Kitchen and upgraded," CEO Kevin Miles told QSR Magazine.

At Zoës you can expect hummus and veggies instead of your typical fast food french fries, and tuna salad sandwiches instead of burgers. The restaurant also caters to customers' dietary restrictions, with plenty of gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan options. There are no items that contain peanuts, so customers with allergies can rest easy. You may also be surprised to find that nothing on the Zoës Kitchen menu is deep fried.

Zoës Kitchen was sold to Cava in 2017

In 2017, Zoës Kitchen announced it would be bought by Cava, a restaurant group that operates a Mediterranean brand across several U.S. states. The sale was finalized in 2018 for about $300 million, effectively ending Zoës short stint as a public company.

According to Money Inc, Zoës had not been doing well before the acquisition; the company was expanding rapidly, but in so doing, they were quickly losing revenue. CNBC reported that Zoës Kitchen saw a net loss of $3.6 million in a single quarter. Cava's purchase of the company provided respite from angry shareholders who had lost money during Zoës' period of losses.

Though some experts said Zoës Kitchen was undervalued, many agreed that the deal would be ultimately beneficial for the restaurant chain. Upon acquiring the company, Cava surveyed customers and found that the most common complaints were inconsistency and wait times. Cava planned to implement changes, including technological updates, in an effort to boost Zoës Kitchen sales and return the fast-casual chain to its former glory.

Zoës Kitchen is especially popular among women

Zoës Kitchen's earliest iteration could be said to have been the dinner table at the Cassimus household in Birmingham. When Zoë Cassimus began cooking meals for the general public, she stuck with the healthy options she served her family, and which she had been served as a child. Now, several decades later, Zoës Kitchen is a healthy oasis in a sea of fast-casual fried foods. This may be one of the reasons why Zoës is most popular among women, who are, on average, more health-conscious than men. 

"Females drive a big percentage of dining decisions," said Kevin Miles, president of the restaurant in 2012. "Males are usually introduced to Zoës Kitchen by a female coworker, girlfriend, or wife. That's how the male customer finds us. But after they come once or twice with a friend, they come more on their own" (via QSR). 

Though Zoës has historically appealed more to females than males, the restaurant has made a concerted effort in recent years to introduce new menu items to attract male customers. Miles told QSR that adding steak and beer to the Zoës menu was an attempt to include those virile, carnivorous men in the Zoës customer base.