Founded in 1995 in Homewood, Ala., Zoës Kitchen is a fast-casual restaurant group serving made-from-scratch, Mediterranean-inspired dishes. As CEO, Kevin Miles has led Zoës Kitchen through an accelerated expansion plan since 2009, growing to more than 180 locations in 19 states across the U.S. today. Miles was recently honored with Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the Year 2016 Retail Award for the Southwest Region for his commitment to excellence and success in such areas as innovation, financial performance and personal commitment to the company and communities. Miles was selected as the award recipient by a panel of independent judges.

Kevin Miles CEO, Zoës KitchenFE&S: It seems Mediterranean food continues to top the list of trending cuisines. How does Zoës capitalize on this?

KM: At Zoës Kitchen, we make continuous menu innovation a priority in an effort to bring a diversified Mediterranean offering to our guests that is filled with nutrients and flavor. We recently added new menu items this year, which embrace wholesome ingredients from the Mediterranean, such as Calabrian peppers, lupini beans and the ancient grain farro. We focus not only on the food itself but also in sharing the Mediterranean lifestyle with our guests for a balanced way of living as inspired by the 21 countries of the Mediterranean. Our food philosophy is rooted in making our dishes from scratch daily with ingredients that are simple, tasty and natural, keeping in mind that what's most important is how our food makes you feel.

FE&S: How has Zoës been able to expand to as many locations as it has today?

KM: I can confidently attribute our success as a restaurant group to the people that embody Zoës Kitchen. Our rapid growth goes beyond our delicious food. At Zoës, we are committed to delivering goodness from the inside out through our dedication to both our guests and employees. We've created an emotional connection with our guests, which keeps them coming through our doors. We place an emphasis on our internal culture and the growth and development of our employees. We are strong believers that happy employees make for happy customers and we know that having a strong, dedicated team directly impacts the company's growth and success.

FE&S: What are the expansion plans for the future?

KM: Our goal as a company is to have 1,600 domestic locations at maturity. We will continue to explore markets where we recognize communities with a desire to eat well where we can provide a differentiated offering. We strive to continue our growth by establishing Zoës Kitchen as a lifestyle brand that inspires our guests to embrace a healthy, Mediterranean lifestyle.

FE&S: Were there operational and/or design changes with this expansion to note?

KM: One thing that was important to me when I first came on board seven years ago was to create a restaurant that operates as seamlessly as possible and is constantly improving. In the beginning, Zoës started out as a family-owned business, with each store operating on an autonomous basis. To make positive changes throughout our growth, we put in a solid structure starting with a strong team, and we continue to provide them with the tools they need while showing them that they have a clear path for career growth with Zoës.

FE&S: Who is your core customer — do you try to cater to Millennials, and if so how do you do that?

KM: Our core consumer has proven to be women and families who are looking to fuel their bodiesZoes Kitchen cumberland Exterior with real, wholesome ingredients and feel great about the dining choices they make. At Zoës, we're dedicated to delivering convenient in-store and takeout meal solutions that enable families to get out of the kitchen and enjoy more time together. Millennials are entering our core consumer set more and more, since they enjoy the quality and convenience of fast-casual, better-for-you options and adventure in their palate that's prevalent through our Mediterranean-inspired offerings. It's especially important to Millennials that they connect with a brand they can identify with. We believe we are on the forefront of creating a lifestyle brand, as guests are increasingly commenting on how great our food makes them feel, rather than solely focusing on their favorite flavors or dishes.

FE&S: How do you keep up with the competition in the very fast growing, fast-casual segment?

KM: We focus on people first and creating an incredible culture, which we believe is going to help us stay ahead in the industry.

FE&S: In your opinion what does the fast-casual segment offer that differs from other segments?

KM: The fast-casual segment is unique because it offers high-quality meals paired with the value and convenience that fits the lifestyle of our customer. Guests are able to stop in to our restaurant and feel good about the food they are purchasing while getting more time to enjoy life.