Q&A With Yalla Mediterranean’s Michael Mitsoglou
You may have noticed that Daphne’s Greek Cafe locations have been replaced with something new: Yalla Mediterranean. I got the chance to check out the new concept at the Culver City location and chat with Yalla Mediterranean co-founder Michael Mitsoglou. Yalla Mediterranean (which means “Let’s Go Mediterranean”) is like Chipolte for Mediterranean food and it’s super delicious. The meat is cooked-to-order on their revolutionary grill and the food is so good!
I got the “Shalafel” plate on power greens during my visit — chicken shawarma and falafel combo (photo below) — and it was so delicious. Along with the other foodies in attendance, I also had the chance to try the off-menu chicken shawarma fries , an assortment of sides and salads and hummus for a yummy lunch to remember! Yalla Mediterranean first opened in 2014 in Pleasant Hill in the East Bay and took over the old Daphne’s spot in Culver City at the end of 2015.
Mitsoglou (Vice President of Operations, New Restaurant Openings) was nice enough to sit down with me and enthusiastically answer some questions about this brand new concept.
How did this concept come about?
It started with a genuine love for Mediterranean food and a strong desire to make it more popular. A small group of us in Chicago, all seasoned restaurateurs sharing the same vision, felt that a fast casual restaurant focused on freshness and approachability that allowed guests to create-their-own favorite Mediterranean plates, salads and wraps by walking down a line (Chipotle style) did not yet exist and we set out to develop it.
From the very beginning, freshness was central in our minds. A bright welcoming space, an open clean kitchen, enticing smells from grilling over an open fire, vibrant displays of salads and spreads are all key elements of the experience. We want our guests to feel as if they are visiting an outdoor market or they were invited to a barbecue party somewhere in the Mediterranean. This is partly why we include a live herb garden and a real lemon tree in our restaurants.
We also wanted authentic flavors and clean food that appeal to the Foodie Generation. These days people are interested in bold flavors and they want to learn more about where the food comes from and how it’s cooked. They like to know what they put in their mouths and prefer the option to participate in creating their own plates.
We presented our vision to an investment firm in Chicago and they also fell in love with it. They share the same love for the food and the same commitment to freshness.
What is the story behind the name?
Yalla is a familiar phrase around the Mediterranean and it means “Let’s go!” Someone suggested it and we fell in love with it because our name became the calling we were looking for. “Let’s go Mediterranean.”
The first store opened in the East Bay and the Culver City location opened last year. Why start in California?
California is the best state to build a new Mediterranean concept. The Mediterranean-type climate is perfect. I mean, look at this, we’re sitting outside in the middle of March and we can still enjoy a nice Mediterranean salad.
Yalla Mediterranean has taken over several Daphne’s locations. What was behind that decision?
We bought Daphne’s a couple of years ago and in addition to building new stores we are converting some of the Daphne’s locations to Yalla.
What has been the journey been like since Yalla Mediterranean opened its first location?
We have learned a lot. In a way, we’re still in a pilot stage. It usually takes a couple of years to get it right. We’ve made several changes based on feedback. The feedback we get from Culver City is different from the feedback we get from Dublin and Seal Beach. That’s what we’re after. We’re opening in diverse markets and diverse demographics. We gather as much feedback as possible.
So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive and we are encouraged we are on the right path.
What has been the most popular dish in all seven locations? And what has been the most popular location?
As we are sitting here in Culver City, I’m happy to say that this location has quickly become our most popular. The people here get it. They know Mediterranean. They know how the build-your-own line works. They have totally embraced us. Already 40 percent of the people who come to this location are frequent diners. For any restaurant to have so many repeat guests 2 months after they have opened is fantastic news.
As far as which dish is most popular, I would say the Yalla Plate. People enjoy it equally well for lunch or dinner. It’s a balanced combination of nutrition and flavors. It comes with basmati rice, grilled vegetables or lentils, your choice of grilled meat or falafel on top and your choice of three little Mediterranean salads or speads on the side. People make endless combinations with it.