You know what a classic Greek diner looks like. Open 24-7. Gleaming silver siding. Bands of neon lighting run along every seam. Tabletop jukeboxes packed with ’50s hits. Autographed photos of debatably famous patrons. And, of course, a sprawling menu that can deliver pancakes at midnight, lobster tail for breakfast, a handful of Grecian specials, and all the many points in-between.
Erase that image from your mind.
Modern Greek restaurants couldn’t be more different. First, there’s not a miniature jukebox or a sheet of silver siding in sight at any of them. The Mediterranean cuisine isn’t an afterthought, either. No longer is it confined to the back of the multipaged laminated menu–now it’s the focus. Whether it’s casual choices like pita sandwiches, kebabs, and Greek salads, or more adventuresome items like grilled octopus and flaming saganaki cheese, Medi-minded restaurants are showcasing their Hellenic heritage to a growing number of American diners.
According to Technomic’s recent Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report, 49 percent of consumers say they have tried Greek cuisine and liked it. An additional 23 percent say they haven’t tried it yet, but would like to give it a go. Even more impressively is the fact that 32 percent of respondents say that they order Greek foods or flavors occasionally (about every 90 days).
Attributed to several factors
This rising interest can be attributed to several factors. Celebrity chefs like Cat Cora, Michael Symon, and Michael Psilakis are celebrating their Greek roots and teaching diners about the cuisine through their restaurants, cookbooks, and television shows. High-profile Greek restaurants like José Andrés’ Zaytinya in Washington, D.C., New York’s Molyvos, Palo Alto, California’s Evvia, and its sister restaurant, San Francisco’s Kokkari, have all earned national attention.
On top of this, the Mediterranean Diet has earned a growing legion of followers in the States since it was introduced in 1993. “The Mediterranean Diet’s not a trend at this point; it’s mainstream,” says Sara Baer-Sinnott, the president of Oldways, which promotes the concept. “Heritage diets are the future, because they’re simple, clean, healthy food.”
This dietary approach–based on traditional dining patterns in the cradle of Western civilization–promotes eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, healthy grains, fish, poultry, and olive oil, as well as small amounts of red wine and dairy. At the same time, it advises cutting back on red meat, sugar, and processed foods.
Pano Karatassos, executive chef of Atlanta’s Kyma and a second generation Greek-American, sees interest in the Mediterranean diet as a reaction to the dining excesses of the past. “The ’90’s was about taking your Tums and having a great dinner made up of decadent foods,” he says. “We knew that beef and butter could put on the pounds, but we didn’t know what it could do to our energy levels.”
Kevin Miles, president and COO of Mediterranean-inspired fast-casual chain Zöes Kitchen, believes that consumers are finally coming around. “They’re realizing, ‘Olive oil is better for me than corn oil. And legumes and grains are better than eating potato chips.’”
This isn’t just a company line. In Technomic’s recent Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report, 32 percent of diners said that they thought of Greek food as healthy and rated it the fourth-healthiest cuisine out of 30 different types. The only cuisines that ranked higher were sushi/Japanese, Chinese, and the larger Mediterranean category.
The Greek players
With all of this interest in Grecian cuisine, there has been an uptick in the founding and expansion of fast-casual concepts focusing on it. Zöes Kitchen has 61 restaurants in 12 states with an eye on having 77 outlets up and running by the year’s end. The chain is “Mediterranean-inspired with a Southern twist, since our origins are in Birmingham, Alabama,” Miles says. So alongside the hummus, pita sandwiches, and kebabs, you’ll find options like pimento cheese, chicken salad sandwiches, and chocolate cake.
There’s a different kind of fusion happening at Daphne’s California Greek, which is, as you would expect, West Coast cuisine with a Mediterranean flair. The chain has been around for two decades, though it was known as Daphne’s Greek Café before CEO William Trefethen bought the company and refocused its direction in 2010. “It’s like having a bar,” he says. “You have to remodel it every three or four years.”
Though the restaurant started out offering mostly traditional Grecian cuisine, Trefethen felt the concept was too niche for mass expansion. “The Greek part of it had to be demystified,” he says. “Even though there is a rise in Greek restaurants and elements in the dining scene, there’s still a lot of pushback, especially from young and middle-aged adult males.”
Now you can still find classic dishes like spanakopita, falafel, and steak kebab mixed in with more Californian choices, such as chargrilled salmon, flatbread pizzas, and a burger served on a pita. Right now, the chain has close to 60 locations that mostly spread throughout the Golden State, though there are outlets in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Boulder, Colorado.
The Little Greek Restaurant chain has a menu that president and co-owner Nick Vojnovic says possesses a “hardcore traditional core that has been slightly Americanized.” Diners can choose from classic choices like baked moussaka (a Grecian “lasagna” made with eggplant, potatoes, and ground beef covered in béchamel sauce then baked golden), pastitsio (a Mediterranean spin on mac ’n’ cheese consisting of macaroni and ground beef topped with béchamel and baked), and dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with herbed rice, tomatoes, and ground beef). Or there are options that would be familiar to stateside diners, like a roast turkey wrap, a cheeseburger, and a Caesar salad. With eight restaurants in Florida and a ninth in Dallas currently, Vojnovic plans to open 25 stores in the next five years.
There are other concepts looking to make their mark and expand, including Cava Mezze Grill, Roti Mediterranean Grill, CK Grille, and Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill. All of these chains are looking to educate their customers about the flavors, history, and benefits of Greek food in the hopes of making a widespread and lasting impression on mainstream diners.
As with any ethnic cuisine, one of the biggest challenges for Medi-minded restaurateurs is helping diners understand what they’re being offered and why it would appeal to their tastes. Since many traditional dishes possess Greek names with which consumers are unfamiliar, there’s an education process that needs to occur to win over the uninitiated. To help ease first-timers into the experience, Little Greek Restaurant restaurants feature large photographs of each dish, as well as a pronunciation guide.
Daphne’s California Greek has a terminology page in its menu that describes less-common dishes like baklava and falafel. The company has a policy of actively engaging with consumers who they believe are unfamiliar with their offerings. “You can tell who’s a new customer,” Trefethen says. “They come in and stand there with a look that says, ‘Wow. What’s that?’ We’ve trained our managers to come around the counter to talk to them.”
To help diners quickly grasp what they’re about to eat, Trefethen likes to compare Mediterranean to a fast-casual option that is already ubiquitous in the States. “It’s like healthy Mexican food,” he says. “There’s not a lot that’s different. You have a pita instead of tortilla. You have some sort of protein in there with lettuce and tomatoes. And instead of cheddar you have feta cheese.”
Giving diners dishes that are similar to foods that they’ve previously enjoyed creates a point of entry to Greek cuisine that can later be expanded to include more traditional dishes that incorporate completely unfamiliar flavors and preparations. At Zöes Kitchen, this means giving the consumer the choice to enjoy mainstream items like a tuna salad sandwich or a grilled chicken sandwich. “We’ve created a non-intimidating and non-polarizing environment,” Miles says. “Even if you’ve never had Greek food in your life, you can feel comfortable going to Zöes and finding something that makes sense to you.”
Even at the Little Greek Restaurants, which have a more traditionally focused menu, first-time diners tend to try dishes that mimic American favorites. “The normal point of entry for the average consumer is a Greek salad or chicken skewers,” says Vojnovic. “They get that. Then they try the gyro or dolmades.”
Best in show
After customers have decided that they enjoy Greek food, what then keeps them coming back? At Daphne’s California Greek, pita sandwiches are the top seller, followed by kebabs and salads. Over at Little Greek Restaurant, chicken pita and gyros take top honors, edging out runners-up like the Greek salad with grilled chicken and the chicken souvlaki skewers. And at Zöes Kitchen, the chicken kebabs and chicken roll-up are the winning dishes.
The latter has been so successful that the restaurant has rolled out chain extensions of the sandwich filled with spinach or steak. Hummus has also been “wildly successful,” Miles says.
At the upscale Kyma, Karatassos has an unexpected No. 1 mover. “I sell octopus on every table,” he says. “It’s the new calamari.” Grilled and served with a red onion salad tossed with zingy red wine vinaigrette, it’s not a dish that Karatassos expected to take off. He’s been pleasantly surprised by its success. “It shows that even in a town like Atlanta–with a lot of great straightforward Southern-style cooking–we can still introduce diners to great ingredients that they’ve never had before,” he says.
Competition and crossover
All of the fast-casual Greek and Mediterranean concepts interviewed for this article have one competitor that they agree on: Chipotle. However, Panera, Subway, Five Guys, and Pei Wei were all mentioned as lunchtime challengers by one or more of the subjects. Additionally, Vojnovic ranked Chili’s and Applebee’s as his No. 1 dinner rival.
Even as these Greek and Mediterranean concepts try to cross over into the mainstream and gain out-of-category success, more restaurants are trying to incorporate Grecian touches to woo customers. According to Technomic’s 2011 Mediterranean Market Intelligence Report, more establishments than ever were experimenting with Mediterranean flavors and preparations in the last several years. Boston Market introduced Mediterranean Green Beans into its Gourmet Market Sides line; Cousins Subs had two Mediterranean-themed subs as limited-time offers; Red Robin Gourmet Burgers fired up a Mt. Olympus Burger and a Mediterranean Chicken Salad as limited-time offers; ZPizza offers a Mediterranean Rustica personal-sized pizza; and Romano’s Macaroni Grill has several offerings currently, like a Mediterranean olives tapas plate and a Mediterranean sea bass entrée.
The future of an ancient tradition
“Americans have only been exposed to the tip of the iceberg,” says renowned cookbook author Diane Kochilas, who is set to publish The Country Cooking of Greece this fall. “Outside the two coasts–and maybe Chicago–Greek food is all about souvlaki, gyro, spanakopita, Greek salad, and baklava.” This means there’s potentially room for growth for menus at existing concepts and for restaurants looking to break into the field.
Zöes Kitchen’s Miles believes that there will be across-the-board growth for the cuisine. “You’re going to see an increased amount of Mediterranean-inspired items in restaurants,” he says. “The question is: How many of them will be true Mediterranean and how many of them will be Mediterranean items at other kinds of restaurants like an Italian concept or a sandwich concept?”
Vojnovic has his own vision for the future. “I predict that there will be a thousand Greek-Mediterranean restaurants out there in 10 years,” he says. “American consumers are looking for something different. Well, here’s a classic food that’s been around for thousands of years that’s healthy and flavorful.”