- Mediterranean fast casual chain Cava opened its first innovation kitchen Monday in Washington, DC, Forbes reports.
- The kitchen will be equipped with digital menu boards to display customers' orders as well as a list of products being tested.
- Using data collected on consumer behavior, analysts at Cava's corporate arm will evaluate which products and technologies should be rolled out across its U.S. stores.
Cava's innovation kitchen, like similar concepts adopted by Shake Shack and Chipotle, aims to predict consumer trends in real time and avoid the extra steps involved in focus groups or test markets before rolling out new products across its stores.
Riding the sustainably-sourced fast casual food wave, Cava has stood out from the pack by offering vegetarian-friendly Greek cuisine, a popular flavor set that is gaining traction in the industry. It enjoys the benefit of facing a less crowded field than its fast casual rivals offering pizza or burgers, and offers healthier options that consumers are increasingly vying for.
Cava further tightened its hold over the Mediterranean market with its acquisition of Zoe's Kitchen last year, expanding the brand to over 300 units and making it the largest fast casual Mediterranean chain by store count. The brand is also flexing its tech muscles, having recently rolled out its online order-ahead drive-thru at a test location.
The grill's mobile app, introduced in 2017, predicts pick-up times with an algorithm adaptive to real-time data. Fast Company ranked Cava 37th in its list of most innovative companies last year for how its data scientists evaluate both customer experience and back-of-house operations through a customized sensor network. The innovation kitchen will similarly employ Cava's team of data scientists to evaluate the popularity of new products and identify issues in point-of-sale operations. The kitchen will test items both for its fast casual and sit-down stores, and for its branded dips and spreads stocked in grocery stores. Its menu already includes several items that rotate on a quarterly, "seasonal" basis.
Innovation kitchens are also a way for brands to attract new attention and traffic to its stores, offering the experience of trying little-known flavors on a dynamically changing menu. Similarly to Shake Shack's innovation kitchen in New York City, Cava's DC-based kitchen pays homage to its roots in the nation's capital, and allows Washingtonians to feel like insiders to the brand's inner workings. The stakes are also much lower when introducing a product at one test kitchen location, rather than across a number of stores.