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.”
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.
“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.