CAVA: Fueling full lives


CAVA’s Director of Marketing talks scale, customer loyalty, and craveable food.

Over the past decade, the “healthy fast-casual” food trend has grown a startling 550 percent, more than ten times the growth seen in the fast food industry. CAVA, a Mediterranean-inspired culinary brand with roots in the DC area, is no exception.

The CAVA culinary brand is rapidly winning customers over, one scoop of harissa at a time. Its stable of fast-casual restaurants has expanded to 44 locations in five states in less than 10 years. CAVA Foods, their product line of dips and spreads, is carried in over 200 Whole Foods and specialty store locations across the country. Despite the rapid growth and its innovative use of data science, CAVA is still all about one thing: Delivering an authentic experience over incredible food.

We sat down with CAVA’s Director of Marketing, Meg Schiffman, to discuss how CAVA has stuck to its kitchen table roots while expanding across the country.

Tell us a little about your background and how you got started in the culinary business?

I’ve been in the food and beverage industry for most of my career. I got my start at vitaminwater, and quickly found that I really thrive in a fast-paced, start-up environment, working on a brand with a powerful combination of passionate people and good-for-you product. I’ve been lucky to land at a handful of brands with a similar make-up and ethos — after vitaminwater, I went on to Muscle Milk, where I led field marketing and ultimately transitioned over to brand management, where I was given the opportunity to launch a new women’s protein drink. I got to know the health and wellness industry inside and out, and also had a personal interest in it — at that time, I was very into racing (running, triathlon and cycling), so working on a lifestyle brand fit well with my own personal passions. I eventually opted to stay closer to home (Muscle Milk is based on the west coast and required a ton of travel), and had the opportunity to join Honest Tea, based in my hometown of Bethesda, MD.

It was my first time working for a truly mission-based business, one where decisions were made based on impact to public health, environment and social good, including fair trade. I led brand management for both Honest Tea and Honest Kids products and learned a tremendous amount, working in conjunction with the Coca Cola team in Atlanta, which had purchased the brand a few years prior. Finally, I landed here at CAVA — I started as our head of sales & marketing for our packaged goods business and my role has transitioned over time (as we’ve grown!) to encompass our restaurant business as well. I’ve always been passionate about food, wellness and nutrition, and CAVA fits that wheelhouse to a tee.

What makes CAVA different from other fast casual restaurants?

CAVA is a culinary brand, with food available in our restaurants and our products available in grocery stores. We create healthy, craveable food for everyone. Our customers can enjoy a great meal without sacrificing health and quality ingredients. We like to think that when you eat at CAVA, you don’t need a snack or a nap afterwards.

As a fellow marketer, I have to say, CAVA’s website is awesome. Within seconds of visiting, I know what you sell, what your mission is, and what drives company culture. How do keep this messaging consistent during periods of rapid growth?

The key is to have everybody unified behind a common mission. For us, it’s “fueling full lives through a bold and innovative food culture.” We have a bold personality which is rooted in the heritage and culture of our founders; and we use innovation to enhance the experience of our customers every day. Since we always circle back to boldness and innovation, those are the cornerstones of our internal and external messaging. Once that foundation is established, and you’ve got a team that rallies around it, it’s surprisingly easy to scale.

Top 2 ways to maintain your voice while experiencing rapid growth:
1. Stay rooted in your mission.
2. Design everything with customer front of mind.

There are so many ways to reach customers these days: social media, apps, website, email, chat. How do you make sure that customers are getting the best service across all platforms?

It all comes down to consistency in training and having a playbook that drives home what the CAVA customer experience should look like. The first step, however, is being very clear and defining your customer service philosophy. Being able to identify the philosophy and distill it down to 4–5 critical words is extremely important. That way, the philosophy can be shared seamlessly with all employees and implemented across all channels.

Are there any channels you don’t use, or try to steer customers away from?

No. For us, it’s all about meeting the customer where they are. If they want to reach us over Facebook Messenger or by calling one of our stores, we’ll be there.

How does CAVA handle a business’s most valuable AND most dreaded platform: online review sites?

Yelp can be a double-edged sword, for sure. Our process is to take every piece of feedback — good or bad — very seriously, and resolve it quickly and empathetically. Every single interaction we have with a guest is an opportunity to turn them into a lifelong fan. Statistics show that customers who have a negative experience that is handled properly are more likely to be a loyal fan than customers who have a positive experience.

Our whole purpose is incredible hospitality, creating great experiences around great food. If we’re not delivering on those two things, then we’re not fulfilling our promise to our guests.

Part of CAVA’s growth has been attributed to strategic partnerships with companies such as Whole Foods and REI. How do you choose which brands you align with?

A lot goes into selecting a great partner. The first thing is just purely having an instinct that a company will be a good fit. We look for companies that not only meet our business needs, but ones that share our values and show a genuine passion for their own mission.

How do you scale customer support during your crazy busy times?

One of our values at CAVA is humility, which means that no one is above any job. We empower our restaurant teams in many ways to handle the crazy ebbs and flows during the day. The simple solution is to just have more hands on deck during lunch and dinner rush and always make sure every location has a clear point person standing by.

At the same time, we are big on teaching our team members how to recognize when there are new customers in line and treating them with a different experience than someone who comes on a regular basis. We always say that we want the line to move “fast enough” for the customer — whether they’re regulars who want to move quickly, or first-timers who want to take in the menu for a bit longer. We cater the guest experience to what their needs are in that given moment. Thanks to our data, we can better anticipate the busy times online and in stores.

At what point did you realize that, from a business perspective, it was time to get outside customer service support?

For us, it’s about maintaining the same level of customer experience no matter how large our business grows. 2017 was an amazing year for CAVA thanks to our guests and our team members. As we saw this growth happening — we new that we need to find the right types of scalable solutions to help ensure the customer experience remained unchanged and the Simplr team was a great partner throughout this!

What would you say to startups that are ready, but hesitant, to outsource customer service?

The best advice I can give is to be true to who you are at your core. As you’re growing and solidifying your customer experience philosophy, you run the risk of partnering with a group who doesn’t fully understand what that looks like. If you’re at a place where you’re confident and consistent with your customer interactions, then you’ll be able to package that in a way that someone could repurpose, rearticulate, and mirror in any situation. At CAVA, this is core to our brand DNA so we believe whether that’s a guest interacting with a team member in our restaurant or a guest writing in to our team — everyone is empowered to put the guest first and make their day special.

Ok, all this CAVA talk is making me hungry. What’s your go-to CAVA meal? 

It changes all the time, but currently it’s:

  • 1/2 super greens 1/2 black beluga lentils
  • 1 scoop each of red pepper hummus, crazy feta and a 1/2 scoop of harissa (it’s that spicy, in a good way!)
  • 1/2 chicken 1/2 roasted veggies

Topped with cabbage and carrots and currants and finished off with our spicy turmeric tahini dressing.

Thank you, Meg!

CAVA has an exciting year planned for 2018. They’re expanding stores across the nation, with Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Texas getting their first CAVA locations ever. Get those mediterranean cravings ready — CAVA is coming for you!

At Simplr, we thrive when our customers thrive. We’ve really enjoyed working with CAVA and have learned so much about maintaining a business’s voice while expanding. We applaud their boldness and drive to stick to their mission.

If you’re interested in partnering with a customer service company dedicated to delivering top quality service, take a look at what our customers saying about us on our customer stories and reviews page!