Secrets of DC Food Chains: What Makes Them So Successful?

By Rina Rapuano  |  August 5, 2014
Credit: Cava Mezze Grill

Perhaps you’ve never noticed that your favorite salad shop or burger joint or Greek takeout is locally owned, but many of Washington’s prospering fast-casual chains were brought to life by DC entrepreneurs. The rise of places like Sweetgreen, Cava Mezze Grill and Five Guys made us wonder: Is there something about this area that makes DC such a fertile ground for the burgeoning trend of fast, healthier food options?

Jack Goodson, marketing and communications coordinator for Five Guys, partially credits the DC area’s economic stability and perpetual tourism — not to mention its savvy diners — as helping to create the perfect launching pad for the company’s concept. (And while it may not be as healthy as, say, a Sweetgreen salad, the company does make its burgers with high-quality, never-frozen meat that can be considered more than a few steps up from the traditional fast-food offerings.)

“The area features a high-income, diverse population that really knows what good food is all about and wants to support locally owned businesses,” Goodson says. “Five Guys started in a small, hard-to-find hole-in-the-wall in Arlington, VA, but that didn’t stop people from making the pilgrimage to try our burgers. Without the greater metro area embracing Five Guys the way [it] did — and continues to do — there’s no way we’d be where we are today.”

Indeed, since the company opened its first location in 1986 and began franchising in 2003, it has grown to more than 1,000 locations in nearly 50 states and in Canada. Other local companies are well on the path to achieving similar success. Sweetgreen, for instance, began in 2007 when three Georgetown students came up with the million-dollar idea of offering top-notch fro-yo and creative, locally sourced salads. Fast forward to now: The company has grown to more than two dozen locations and crossed state lines into New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

Cava Mezze Grill, the fast-casual offshoot of the popular Mediterranean small-plates local chainlet Cava Mezze, has plans to follow suit but prides itself on its slow-and-steady approach. “We hope to have the opportunity to take Cava Grill beyond our home market at some point, but we have a lot to tackle in our hometown first,” says partner Brett Schulman.

The brand has stores in the works for Chinatown, Montgomery Mall and Kentlands, plus two more expected to open in Fairfax and Ashburn next year — all the while scouting for new locations in the District. The concept, which marries three things Washingtonians seem to love — local ingredients, healthy fast food and robust flavor — is clearly a hit with DC eaters.

“I think metro residents understand [that] good food and a good experience is worth a little extra,” Five Guys’ Goodson says about the fast-casual boom in DC. “In that sense, professional Washington had been seeking a new, fresh style of food service for years. Fast-casual came along and proved to be exactly what the doctor ordered.”

And perhaps there’s a sense that if they can make it here, they can make it anywhere. Consider ShopHouse, the Southeast Asian concept from Chipotle that debuted in DC in 2011 and now has nearly 10 locations in DC, Maryland and California. Backed by Chipotle, the newcomer could have started in New York City, Los Angeles or San Francisco. Why DC?

“Washington, DC, is a great market for Chipotle in terms of performance, so that was certainly appealing,” says Tim Wildin, brand director for ShopHouse. “More importantly, however, Washington is a culturally diverse city with a burgeoning food scene.”

He added that the space they found in Dupont Circle was just what he was looking for and that Washington gave them the breathing room to grow. “Opening here under the radar and using it as a place to experiment and learn, rather than make a big splash, helped us to understand how the brand would fare among diners who have lots of options,” he says.

Other successful local chains include Georgetown Cupcake, which is already in the process of expanding into other regions, and Elevation Burger, which first opened in Northern Virginia in 2005 and began franchising three years later. Elevation Burger is now in a dozen or so states and even has locations in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, among other Middle Eastern countries.

So, will there be a Ben’s Chili Bowl in SoHo or a Buzz Bakery in Boston? Only time will tell, but Washingtonians will likely continue to incubate more fast, healthy options like Merzi and Chix. In fact, Eater DC just reported that DC-based Bonmi, a Vietnamese version of the fast-casual model, has plans to expand into New York and California.

Wherever our local ideas land next, you can be sure that Washingtonians will continue to root for the home team.

“It’s really nice to be known as a local business in this area,” says Schulman. “We have grown up here and built this business from scratch in the DC market. The people of this city have a real sense of pride as they support our local business.”