Building Better CMOs
Podcast Transcript - Building Better CMOs

Cava Chief Experience Officer Andy Rebhun, Page 1

Andy Rebhun, the chief experience officer at Cava, talks with MMA Global CEO Greg Stuart about the importance of consistent authenticity, how to thrive in the C-Suite, and "bringing the weather" for everyone — including Uber Eats drivers.
Andy Rebhun: Ultimately, if you can figure out a way to be a human while also being an optimist and an energizer, and cheerleader, people are going to respect you for that. And bringing the weather is important because I think people will take your direction and take the tone that you ultimately set for the organization or for the team, and really make a determination on how they want to show up.

Greg Stuart: Welcome to Building Better CMOs, a podcast about how marketers could get stronger and smarter. I am Greg Stuart, the CEO of the nonprofit MMA Global. And that voice you heard at the top is Andy Rebhun, the chief experience officer at the fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant chain Cava. He's been with the company for over a year, but previously led marketing roles at Ford Motor Company and McDonald's. His last role before this was CMO of the Mexican restaurant chain, El Pollo Loco. Now today on the podcast, Andy and I are going to talk about the moment that Mediterranean food is having in the world today. And I think that's very true, but also being really authentic and consistent, and what that might mean to a business and customer relationship. Now, this podcast is all about the challenges that marketers face, and unlocking the true power that marketing can have. Andy Rebhun is going to tell us just how he does it right after this.

So Andy Rebhun from Cava, welcome to Building Better CMOs today.

AR: Thank you, Greg, for having me. Great to be here.

What is Cava?

GS: I'm really excited about this conversation. I know where the topic's going to go, so I'm interested to get there. But listen, first off, we have to talk about your business. Is Cava... is it fast casual or quick service? Do you classify? Do you care? I don't know.

AR: Well, I would say Cava is definitely fast casual. It is a fast-growing category, and Mediterranean food is the most underserved. And for those who don't know what Cava is, it's Mediterranean-inspired cuisine, and it's an experience you can't get anywhere else. We have a unique culinary perspective with food that unites taste and health without compromise. We're proving that there's a big appetite for bold, high-quality, and accessible food across the country. For us, it's really about authenticity and heart resonating with consumers, making our concept nearly impossible to imitate. And like I had shared with you, Greg, in the lead-up to the conversation, we have incredible flavors for nearly everybody who wants to try our menu. Four entrees, six dips, seven mains, 13 toppings, eight dressings. It adds up to 17 billion potential combinations. It's really, really good. I can't wait for us to get some together in New York.

GS: I love it. And maybe just give a sense of... Because you're pretty distributed, certainly Southwest, Southeast, if I noticed properly. Is that right? Maybe give some sense of geography for those who maybe haven't had exposure yet.

AR: Yeah, I can do that. We have 320-plus locations in 25 states, including the District of Columbia. We just opened our first location in the Midwest about four weeks ago. It's in Chicago. It's a great outpost. We're really excited to show up there. Really, really proud of the way that that opening has gone. And for those who don't have a Cava near them, we also have a CPG business where you can get your dips and spreads at Whole Foods, things like hummus, tzatziki, Crazy Feta. It gives you an opportunity to taste some of the unique flavors of the restaurant at Whole Foods nationwide.

Greek Values

GS: Yeah, and it's funny, I will just say on a personal standpoint, if my wife was given her choice of a Mediterranean restaurant versus something else, I think she would always choose Mediterranean, just to your point. I just noticed that in the last five years, I don't know if you guys have created that trend or if there's something else going on, but it does seem to be kind of interesting... It seems to be of the moment at least, right?

AR: Yeah. Mediterranean food has been the number one diet in the world for the last seven years, and so it's definitely having a moment. And there's a lot of people who are talking about it in the food space. A lot of Mediterranean-inspired dishes are coming out across the restaurant space, and we really, truly feel like we can define that space and grow it and be the leader.

GS: And I think to the question of real integrity to the brand, if I noticed the founders are Greek, or at least a couple of them had very Greek-looking names.

AR: Yes, they are. They are three guys, Ted, Ike, and Dimitri, and then a fourth co-founder is our current CEO, Brett Schulman. But the guys are still very involved in the business. Ted Xenohristos is chief concept officer. He's kind of like my main partner in crime from a menu and culinary innovation standpoint. But they are genuine, they're humble, they're hardworking. They lay on the train tracks for the brand and the product, and it's something truly special. Sometimes you see founders come into a brand and then they have an opportunity to exit. These guys are in it for the long haul, and they're just so incredible at what they do and the way that they lead. Humble, generous, very inspiring, and it's just such a special thing to be a part of on a day-in and day-out basis.

GS: And I think the accessibility is going to be great because you guys went public here recently, which is an opportunity to raise a bunch of capital and raise the status of the brand. And then I think I saw on some note somewhere, so you can correct me, but you're looking, somewhere after 2030, you expect to be at a thousand restaurants. So you're going for a thousand here in the next, I don't know, whatever number of years that is, six, seven years.

AR: Yeah, we've committed to a thousand locations by 2032. And again, different years will have different growth patterns, different strategy, but we're definitely committed to that number.

What Is a Chief Experience Officer?

GS: Huh. This is actually... This sort of interesting. Now here's also something that caught my attention, Andy, if I can say. You are actually chief experience officer. So you were CMO, you were chief marketing officer, and/or, in addition, chief digital officer at El Pollo Loco at one point.

AR: Yes.

GS: And you have a background at McDonald's, which I noticed was very digitally oriented. So I just got that. So I get a sense of who you are, but here you went for chief experience... Is there a CMO at Cava?

AR: No.

GS: You're it?

AR: Nope. So chief experience officer combines what I would like to say is the entire end-to-end customer journey. So everything from marketing to digital, to catering, to customer service, to communications, that's part of the remit of the chief experience officer. I think Cava really set the tone for this role in the restaurant space. There's not too many restaurant companies that have a chief experience officer, but because of the nature of our brand, its growth, and the desire to want to make sure that that end-to-end customer journey and experience is one of the best in the restaurant landscape, there really was a desire to want to try to get somebody who can span the entire remit and really lead with a customer-first lens.

GS: Listen, MMA's done... You and I haven't gotten into this before, but MMA has done a lot of research around marketing org, which led us to understanding the basic thematics of core marketing strategies of which there are really only three. It's brand, it's transactional—what sometimes we call direct-to-consumer—and customer experience. There's only three. You can have different combinations, but there's really three courses. We've overcomplicated our business, I think, for boards and CFOs, so let's stick with that. What's interesting is that there's some indication in our research that when the CMO owns customer experience, customer experience becomes the number one driver of performance across companies. So what it's suggesting, and it's a little over skis in what the research is showing, but what we believe is that customer experience is the marketing strategy of the future. It's not brand where most of us... I mean you included. McDonald's at some level, Ford. You were at Ford, too. You would've grown up in a brand world, right?

AR: Very much so. Very much so. But I think what's been interesting about the space in general is you look at something like off-premise delivery. So Uber Eats, DoorDash. A lot of ways to take the product off of the premise, and that's just something that when I started growing up at McDonald's, it didn't happen. And you look at just how the pandemic had happened and how delivery in general just blossomed as a category. It's really interesting.

GS: It's crazy. I told you the brand, I won't mention the brand here, but one of the very biggest of QSRs out there had pointed out to me, this is a couple of years ago. They said, "Listen, Greg. We used to have four personas." They identified their customer experience. It was counter cash, counter credit, drive-in cash, drive-in credit. There was those four. That was it. So this woman who told me this—who's either chief digital or chief experience officer, I don't remember exactly, but a variation of that title—and she said, "We now have 28."

AR: It's wild.

GS: I mean, my sense—and you're going to have a longer history than I have—but I think that's really happened probably just in the pandemic or was there a big movement there already?

AR: I think there was a big movement there already, but I think it became more widely adopted quickly. You look at all the different touchpoints and access points for a brand. You think about in the restaurant space, you've got mobile pickup, you have mobile delivery, you have counter service, you have in-restaurant dining, you have drive-thrus, you have catering. The list goes on and on. And I think to have that level of consistency for a brand and what is most important is that brand experience. And we feel like at Cava we constantly think customer first but also make sure that we set up the team member to succeed for that customer. And as the business has grown and as these different mediums for accessing the product has expanded, we've continued to grow every step of the way and invested heavily in our digital ecosystem to make sure that we have a best-in-class product to provide for our consumers.

High-Tech Restaurants and Delivery

GS: It's funny, we had the CMO of, I think it was Domino's—it could have been Pizza Hut, but I think it was Domino's—who spoke at one of my events here, this is seven, eight years ago. This was a little while ago, and we were a little bit more focused on mobile. MMA tends to focus on what's new next, and mobile at that moment was in. I'll never forget, his presentation was basically how he told the franchisees, he says, "You can't even imagine the outrage when I pointed out to them that we were a technology company providing pizzas, not a pizza company with some tech," and he said, "It was almost near rebellion."

But if you think about, and this is long before I think Uber, let alone Uber Eats and DoorDash and others existed and pizza owned the delivery category. They owned food delivery. I mean, they were the only people in general who did it. But he said it was absolute... There was just outrage. Clearly, he was right, but it really just changed the nature of how you deliver your product to consumers when you have to think about that. By the way, funny question, not to put you on the spot for this. What is the number one complaint from consumers about food delivery?

AR: I think the biggest complaint is the actual last-mile delivery product itself. I think there's times, especially just given the high demand in the space that "My order took too long to get here." And I think there's things like traffic. You try to build scale with drivers picking up multiple orders, that's probably the largest issue.

GS: Yeah. And you think about it, that kind of logistics was not something you had to solve at one point in terms of experience.

AR: No doubt. But I think when you talk about digital experience overall and digital versus technology, I think Cava got to the game very early on. In the last 10 years, they really created a seamless multichannel experience, and we've built our digital product in-house. It's a highly scalable digital order ecosystem. We have a second make line. We have a dedicated digital production, digital drive-thru pickup lanes. And we're now in the early stages of that decade-long data transformation as well. And so we're going to be coming out with our reimagined loyalty program by the end of the year. And we're really looking to significantly grow our first-party audience, connecting with guests in ways that are personal and relevant and create more frequent relevant experiences for those guests that drive traffic mix and check. And then, like I said, we have it in pilot right now. We're seeing some early signs of success, but obviously, by the time people will listen to this podcast, it'll be a little closer to that date.

GS: Yeah, that's interesting. I mean, you're not only the food of the future, but you're in a position to build restaurants, facilities, if I can use that. That's kind of a cold word, but the right operations. It's funny, I was at one of your competitors the other day, and I was really a little bit gobsmacked by the complexity of technology that seemed to be existing behind that counter. As I looked back over the kitchen, it was very funny to me. I thought, wow, that's a lot of tech to run, just simple pumping out of hamburgers or whatever.

AR: Yeah, I think one of the things you have to think about as you're implementing technology is that Cava's success is always going to be a byproduct of our team member's success. So we're committed to making things easier for them. We're committed to giving people not just jobs, but an opportunity to build careers. And I think when you think about just the complexity of how technology has continued to expand specifically in the restaurant space, you want to figure out ways that can make the job easier. And every single decision we make as leaders is very impactful to the way that those restaurant team members show up every single day. And we're very committed to making sure that it makes sense for both them and the customer.

How Cava Is Combating Loneliness

GS: Yeah. You referenced something earlier that's been getting a lot of news. And we're really off the topic of food, so we'll come back here to the main topics, I'm just finding this very interesting. You mentioned about, I think if I heard you right, building restaurants for the current state of loneliness in America. Is that how you put that?

AR: Yeah. I mean I think you've seen loneliness has expanded dramatically.

GS: There's a lot of awareness and news about it for sure. I agree. Yeah.

AR: Yeah. Loneliness, disconnection in general. Approximately half of US adults report experiencing loneliness according to the US Surgeon General report. One in three Americans feel lonely every week, American Psychiatric Association. So there's definitely really a lot of conversation in this space. And for us, we have this initiative at Cava called Project Soul, and it really reflects elements of our heritage and culture, and we're really trying to make our physical channel more experiential and welcoming and give people an opportunity to be welcome to our table. We know that customers still want to dine out. We know that they're less likely to visit some of those full-service restaurant locations.

And for us, it's really about reinventing what that restaurant experience could look like. We launched one of probably our most complete versions of Project Soul in Chicago. I know we talked about that a little bit, that Chicago is our first and newest location in the fleet right now, and we're just going to continue to double down on how do we create that physical environment space that people will feel welcome in, they'll want to spend time, they'll listen to the music, they'll obviously see our friendly and hospitable team members. It's just a huge part of restaurant branding and the experience for the future.

GS: It makes so much sense because I think in some regards, I heard there was a deprivation study done between Starbucks and Dunkin' consumers a number of years ago. Deprivation means they basically told people, if you were a Starbucks loyalist, you couldn't go to Starbucks, you had to only go to Dunkin' and vice versa. If you were a Dunkin' loyalist, you could only go to Starbucks. Okay. You know what the Dunkin' people said in Starbucks? I thought it was very funny because they've created this whole thesis around the baristas and everything else. Starbucks, they go, "It was feeling like you were at somebody else's holiday party that you didn't know."

AR: That's funny. That's funny. Very, very funny. People are particular about their coffee. I get it.

GS: I get it. But I think it's getting at that sort of sense of what is that place to me? What does that place mean? Am I just going there for the coffee or am I going there for that experience with others? Which is back to where I opened up, that MMA is at least operating in a thesis that customer experience is the more important of the things that we as marketers need to figure out. I'll tell you, one of the big, big CMOs, a multibillion-dollar budget CMO, I said to her a while ago, "I think the MMA's main mission is to translate brand CMOs into customer experience CMOs." She didn't even hesitate. She goes, "That's my journey."

AR: I love that.

GS: I love that, don't you? I do, too. How fast she said that, which is basically that's your thematic, Andy. You are a customer experience guy. You would never take on the CMO title again, I'm assuming at some level. I don't know.

AR: I don't think so. I plan on spending a long time at Cava.

GS: Never say never.

AR: Yeah, never say never. But I plan on spending a long time at Cava. I think the beauty is the customer experience has been a huge part of the way that Cava has differentiated itself for quite some time. And we have an incredible team here, and we're just going to continue to build on the foundation of that great experience that we've created thus far.

New Menu Item: Grilled Steak

GS: Okay. Now listen, I'd be remiss not to give you a little opportunity for some promotion, although I think we've gotten in a pretty good word for Cava already. New menu items coming up. You want to just mention something then we're going to jump to the other topics. What's the new menu item coming up? What should people know about?

AR: Yeah, for sure. So we are very excited to be launching grilled steak. It's been something that we have been working on for quite some time as a brand. It's something that is truly just incredible in terms of the way that we've been able to build menu innovation. It's certainly something that I would say beef is having a moment in the restaurant space right now, and it's also something that we feel like can truly showcase our ability to put a Mediterranean flavor on something that is very much widely known in the food space.

GS: Good. Well, it's good to know beef is back. I think there's the slogan.

AR: Beef is back.

GS: We'll turn that over to the ad agency. Okay, listen—

AR: Yeah, for sure. But one other thing I'd say about steak is we are doing it the Mediterranean way. It's fired up on the grill, unique Mediterranean flavor, sundried tomato, herby oregano, Aleppo pepper, grass-fed pasture raised. Again, I want people's mouths to salivate and want to visit a Cava immediately after listening to this podcast. So to me, I need to give steak its moment in the sun.

GS: It's working for me, Andy. From talking to you just in the what? 30 minutes that we've now been together it's something that I'm ready to go. It's just I'm not in New York City right now, but by the weekend I'll be back. So I'll be there next week. Okay? I'll try it.

AR: Awesome.

GS: Good.

AR: I love it.

Bring the Weather

GS: Okay, so listen, let's jump into some of the marketing stuff here for Building Better CMOs. My experience and the experience I find from others is that there's advice that we've been given along the way that was instrumental to us rethinking what we believe to be either true about marketing, but could be a profession, certainly from a personal standpoint. In fact, I've kind of seen my personal main mission in life is about I'm trying to instruct my children in some regards so that they don't have to learn the same hard lessons... They didn't get taught, didn't hear, didn't understand. And I find that people who are successful, who get to the top C-suite jobs actually, they got there from the help of others and stuff. So I'd be curious if you're able to isolate, what is the best advice that you think you've been given? And again, it could be personal, professional, career, however, you want to go at it. Just what do you recall, and I'd like to just hear a little story about that.

AR: Best advice is you bring the weather. People will look at you to see how you set the tone, how you set an example as a leader. And for me, very early on in my career, I had an opportunity to see large organizations transform regularly. So there would be reorgs, there would be layoffs, there would be situations where you had to let go of an agency or you brought on a new agency or budgets were cut. But ultimately you have the opportunity to set the direction and tone and the nature of the way that the team dynamic functions. You can really change the way that people show up as a result of your own interactions.

GS: Yeah. Listen, there's three states of marketing org going on, Andy. You're either in a marketing org right now, you're about to start one, or you just finished one. There are no other timeframes in the marketer's world today from what I can see. Okay. So do you remember who gave you "You bring the weather"? Was there somebody who said that to you at some point? I'm curious.

AR: It was one of my first bosses that I had at Ford. And it was—

GS: Oh, really?

AR: Yes, it was. And it was one of the situations where we were going through some agency transformation, and it was particularly difficult as we were transforming. And you can think about it and be hard on yourself and say, "Hey, this really is challenging. This is not the way I want to do things." But I think ultimately if you can figure out a way to be a human while also being an optimist and an energizer and cheerleader, people are going to respect you for that. And bringing the weather is important because I think people will take your direction and take the tone that you ultimately set for the organization or for the team and really make a determination on how they want to show up. So to me, it's always been try to figure out a way, even when the times get tough, to really inspire the team because that's going to be so important to keep their well-being well and certainly make sure that people feel like they're coming to work every single day with a mission.

GS: Now is the theme of that one that you got to be sunny all the time because is that what the idea is or...?

AR: No, not necessarily being sunny all the time. You have to be a realist, too. But I think ultimately it comes with you want to be the person that really helps set the tone, set the direction, and there's different ways that you can handle things. And I would say that for me, it's really about trying to be the individual who sets the tone to inspire direction for the entire team. There's going to be days where your agency's working 12, 16 hours a day and you really want to make sure that you say thank you. You do little things, send them a gift, or really make sure they feel valued from that entry-level person to the person who's the managing director on the account. It's really important that they feel like they're part of your brand's mission and they feel like they're part of the solution of the problem.

Tough Assignments

GS: There's a big thematic in business today that is like, "Oh, we need to be nice to everybody." Now, for a guy from New York City, I really struggle with that because if you ask me, New York City became the great city it is because everybody's on edge all the time because you know at any moment you're going to get blasted. But I get it, we've changed. The world's supposed to be nicer. Is that just it, being nicer to everybody?

AR: Look, I think you can be nice, but there's also accountability. Accountability comes into the equation. When you have deliverables, you're held accountable for results, but I think it's really how you give the feedback or how you set the direction that'll ultimately, I guess more or less give the team a way to respond. And I always want that response to be met with encouragement, desire, and motivation because collectively we win together.

GS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Wow, really. I know you got that back at Ford, but that sounds like a very Greek mentality to me actually, by the way, at some level. I've got a Greek guy on my team. I might associate some of that with him. He'd strike me as some of that sometimes.

AR: Mediterranean hospitality. It's definitely a thing.

GS: Mediterranean hospitality. There it is. Okay, good. Any other good advice you want to pass along to anybody or should we move on to the big topic?

AR: I think the other good advice I'd say is take the tough assignments. I know sometimes tough assignments always come with a bit of uncertainty, uneasiness. I myself moved six times in 11 years in the two large organizations I had been a part of. But I would say that those opportunities definitely changed the way I look at the world and at business today, and I wouldn't have traded them in for anything. And while personally, it might be difficult to pick up your bags and relocate to a city, it helps you learn the United States. It helps you learn the foundation of working with a lot of other people. And I always encourage the people who I'm fortunate enough to mentor to take the tough assignments, make the moves earlier on in your careers because it only gets a little bit more difficult as time moves on.

GS: Yeah. And listen, the learnings from the tough assignments, right? I mean you gain... For me at my age and the relationship I have to my kids who are now young adults, I try to tell them life is about picking up competency. It's a variation of what I think you just said. And self-esteem is built from doing esteemable things, and it's either doing good things for yourself or something good for others and having it appreciated. But I think those tough assignments put us in a position to sort of deliver against those things. That's what I remember the most. I remember the tough things I got through. I think that's what matters, right?

AR: I definitely think so. I also believe that with the tough assignments, you definitely learn how to persevere in more challenging situations at a higher leadership level. Budget cuts, reallocation of resources, transformation with organizations. So getting those experiences early on and working for people who were just humble, dynamic leaders really helped shape who I am today.

GS: Let's take a quick break. We'll be back right after this with Andy Rebhun.

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