A Big, Fat Greek Restaurant

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Among the many shops of Soho in Homewood sits a restaurant whose presence is a powerful tribute to the Greek business influence on the Birmingham area. For well over a decade, Zoës Kitchen has been serving thousands of hungry customers from all walks of life.
While the restaurant’s home store sits just one block down the street from its original location, Zoës has nearly 30 locations operating across the country.

A Brand From Scratch

In 1995, Zoë Cassimus and her husband Marcus founded the original Zoës Kitchen in Homewood. Their son, John, founder of the Zoës franchise said his parents “were ready for a change” and wanted to open up a restaurant. Serving their own traditional recipes, the Cassimus family soon realized just how appealing Greek food was to Birmingham locals.
“All the recipes are from my mom and myself and my father,” Cassimus said.

The menu is small but diverse, containing sandwiches, salads, and various servings of chicken and other meats. It was this same menu that soon had the Cassimus’ eyeing a possible expansion, not just in Alabama but outside the Southeast as well.

Just several years after the original location started at 1927 29th Ave. in Homewood, John Cassimus arrived back in Birmingham after working in the restaurant business in Atlanta. At that point, Zoë and Marcus had already seen their business become a major success but did not plan on any further expansion.

“My parents weren’t going to do anything more with the concept. They were making money and were content at that age with that one store. That was all they needed,” Cassimus said. “So I basically got the right to use the name and the recipes and went out and opened my first restaurant at the end of 1999.” zoesinside

A Vision to Reality

Over the next eight years Cassimus’s vision became a reality, building 16 restaurants in six different states. Success did not always come immediately as the number of locations quickly grew. Once Cassimus tried expanding outside Birmingham, he said that they initially struggled while reaching out to new areas outside the city.

“We figured out through research and market studies that we were not as credible in the eyes of the customer as we needed to be. That lead us to go through a rebranding process and a logo change,” Cassimus said.

The changes made Zoës more appealing to a general audience and not just to seem like a “mom and pop” kind of store. As the years went by, Cassimus’ restaurant expanded further outside the South. Now Zoës can be found as far away as Phoenix and Maryland.

In October 2007 Cassimus sold most of the company’s equity to Brentwood Associates, a private equity firm located in Los Angeles. That year, according to Cassimus, Zoës was the most profitable restaurant business in the country.

Founded only a short 12 years ago, the quick expansion of the chain resulted from what Zoës employees say is the quality of their food and service.

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Zoës Today

“The Zoës philosophy” has made the casual dining experience more elastic.

Walking in, patrons find a relaxed atmosphere with friendly service. The sleek design and Mediterranean colors are common at all locations and give a sense of continuity as well as the feeling that Zoës has remained true to its Birmingham roots.

When looking back on the restaurant empire, Cassimus said, “We built a brand from scratch. We went out there and we were able to create something from nothing and create an incredible culture with great employees. We have an incredible product that people love.”

Over the years Zoës menu expanded to include steak rollups and a club pita, but kept a number of delicious sides, including pastas, soups, chicken and potato salad that customers love.

At the Zoës restaurant in Mountain Brook’s Crestline Village a sign next to the drink station reads: “Y’all come get you some sweet tea.” Just another example of how Southern hospitality and Greek food make a winning combination.

Cassimus, who now has two new restaurants called Jinsei (located next door to the Zoës Kitchen at Soho in Homewood) and Maki Fresh, proudly mentions that customers often eat at Zoës as much as two to three times a week. A sign that Zoës will no doubt remain a staple of Birmingham even as it continues its nationwide expansion.

Bigger and Better

Owl’s Hollow Farm owner Rod Palmer walked out to his Gadsden, Ala., farm in early January 2011 to discover all six of his hydroponic greenhouses collapsed under the weight of nearly eight inches of snow and ice. These special greenhouses housed the majority of the farm’s hydroponic produce, which is grown in nutrient-rich water instead of soil.

“I heard it,” Palmer said. “It was 5:30 a.m., and it shook the house. I knew what it was, but there was nothing I could do.”

The farmer stood in shock at the sight of his destroyed greenhouses and entire lettuce crops lost to the cold. Ten years worth of time and effort lay in messy, snow-covered heaps.

After the shock wore off, Palmer jumped straight into action.

“It was a couple hundred thousand dollars just gone,” Palmer said. “I had to ‘unbuild.’ Crying, kicking and screaming.”

During the process, the stressed farmer occasionally found pockets of perfectly preserved lettuce.

“Sometime we’d find maybe 300 heads of Romaine,” Palmer said. “It was just beautiful.”

Community Gives Back

Destroyed greenhouses

Palmer’s business has become well established in the Birmingham area since opening in May 2001, and throughout the disaster, Palmer said that the community’s support inspired him. People rallied to help the destroyed farm, something Palmer is extremely grateful for.

“I’m so thankful,” Palmer said. “I never knew people depended on local food so much.”

Owl’s Hollow has sold produce to restaurants all over Birmingham, as well as Pepper Place Market in the spring and summer months. Because the vegetables are grown using the hydroponic technique, Palmer is able to grow and sell his produce year round.

Local Homewood restaurant Urban Cookhouse depends on Owl’s Hollow for most of their produce and even held a fundraiser for the farm.

On Feb. 9, the restaurant donated 100 percent of all takeout dinner proceeds to the farm to help buy new greenhouses.

Palmer said that people he did not even know contacted him, wanting to help.

“People started sending me letters and calling saying ‘I’m so sorry’ or ‘I’m praying for you.’ It’s been one of the best bad experiences you can imagine,” he said.

A Better Tomorrow

While waiting for the new greenhouses to go up in March, the farm managed to survive. Palmer and a small team of farm hands salvaged everything possible and focused on rebuilding.

“You’d see all the remains and you’d know it all goes somewhere,” Palmer said.

Radishes growing in mineral solutions

Most importantly, the farm kept growing. Hundreds of heads of lettuce floated on styrofoam in a man-made pond on the farm while makeshift garden beds were filled with mineral solutions and used to grow herbs and smaller produce. A small trailer that sits on the farm held thousands of tiny tomatoes and sprouting basil plants.

Though this disaster caused nothing but stress and shock when it struck, Palmer tried to remain positive. The farmer viewed it as a chance to improve the farm, saying that rebuilding from the ground up would only make everything “bigger and better.”