For years doctors have promoted the benefits of the Mediterranean diet – full of heart-healthy foods such as olive oil, nuts, fish, whole grains and vegetables. The benefits of the diet have been tied to the reduction of heart disease, cancer, and Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.
Several brands in the fast casual segment have explored the menu offering of the Mediterranean diet, with concepts such as Zoe’s Kitchen, Daphne’s Greek Café, Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill and Kalamata Greek Café offering such fare.
For Alon Mor, the founder of Denver-based Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill, the menu offering was an easy choice given his family’s Israeli heritage.
The menu items are recipes Mor received from his mother, aunts and other relatives, which he tested for six months prior to officially opening Garbanzo’s doors.
“The idea was always to take this and do it big, but we didn’t know how fast it would happen,” Mor said. “You always have big plans, but you never know if it’s going to take off or not.”
The first Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill opened in Denver in 2008, and today there are another 14 locations open. Mor also started to franchise the concept in 2009 and recently signed a franchise owner in the New York and New Jersey region.
“We’re so proud of our health aspect that we put our calorie counts on menus,” Mor said. “We’ve had a lot of interest in our restaurants and the Mediterranean diet is a big thing.”
Mor cut his restaurant-industry chops working in the Panera Bread system in various franchise management roles. His family liked Mediterranean food, but never found a place that stood up to his food safety standards.
“Then I looked at the Chinese industry and the Mexican industry and thought there’s no reason why these guys did it and why we couldn’t,” he said.
So for six weeks Mor opened for lunch and handed our menu items for free in an effort to test what worked and what didn’t.
“A week into it we opened for lunch and dinner for a couple of hours each day and let people taste the food, and we used them as a mini focus group,” Mor said. “And every day, the lines got longer and longer. Then I said, let’s see if this works if we start charging people money, and it was just incredible. We opened and the lines didn’t stop. Three weeks later, we signed a deal for our second location.”
It seems a large number of these concepts are founded by restaurateurs with Mediterranean roots.
Dennis and Tom Chinonis, founders of Kalamata Greek Café, used their Greek heritage to bring healthy menu items to Detroit-area diners. And did so at a time when the city was floundering. The brothers spent four years developing the concept.
“Right off the bat we knew we wanted to come up with something that dispelled the typical perception of what a Greek restaurant is,” Tom Chinonis said.
So the brothers hired esteemed architect Ron Ray to develop a modern look and feel, and created a brand based on the colors of purple and light green.
“We focused on really making an impact with our décor, which is uniquely modern and something totally different than a traditional Greek restaurant or chain,” Tom said. “My brother and I also created the menu together. The goal was not to have every Greek item under the Sun. We limited it to those we could do in a fast casual format and those we could feel comfortable creating recipes.
“We focus on the speed (of service), but the food is where it’s at. That’s not to say we have a Greek aunt waking up at 5:30 in the morning to make spinach pies. We’ve created an extremely efficient process that allows any of our staff to prepare food in advance.”
While Kalamata was a new restaurant for the brothers, they were not foreign to the industry. Their father and brother launched the YAYA’s Flame Broiled Chicken franchise in the 1980s that still operates 18 units in Michigan.
Dennis continued to work for the restaurant chain while his brother Tom headed to law school. Kalamata has been so well received that Tom left his job as a corporate attorney to focus full time on operations. And now that the economy has picked up in Motor City, the business continues to grow.
“Despite what has happened in our economy here in Detroit, where as you may know was the Ground Zero for the economic collapse, we’ve had tremendous success,” Tom said. “There have been a lot of restaurants folding up shop here in Southeast Michigan as a result … Granted, we weren’t happy with the timing (of the economic collapse) but we take some comfort in knowing that if we can do well in this economy, we’ll be OK.”