Ones to Watch | By Lynne Miller
It started in Brian Khoddam’s garage. Using a small oven and mixer, Khoddam and his uncle, Hormoz Ghaznavi, tested and tweaked recipes for piecrust that was sturdy enough to hold meat and vegetable fillings yet tasted light and flaky. Getting the crust just right was challenging. After a lot of trial and error, the two felt they had a winning formula that could be produced in a restaurant kitchen.
Then in 2005, Khoddam and Ghaznavi opened The Cravery, a quick-serve restaurant specializing in gourmet handheld pot pies, in Irvine, California. Since then, the brand has expanded to three more locations in California, and the founders see potential for more restaurants outside the Golden State.
“The cuisine is unique,” Khoddam says. “As far as I know there’s nothing like it in the state.”
Khoddam, who is Persian, discovered meat pies on a trip to South Africa to visit his wife’s family. According to him, meat pies are as beloved in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand as apple pie is in America. The Cravery’s 7 ½-ounce pies are popular for lunch and dinner, a result of their portability, Khoddam says. Diners can choose from among 11 varieties, stuffed with meat, chicken, or vegetable fillings. Top sellers are the chicken and mushroom and pepper steak pies, though the founders occasionally experiment with new flavors like a cheeseburger pie. In the future, Khoddam would like to introduce a new pie every quarter.
He and Ghaznavi take pride in their food. The crust is made from scratch with real butter. The meatballs are made from fresh ground beef and taste superior to any of the 16 frozen varieties Khoddam and Ghaznavi sampled.
“What we will never compromise is the quality of our food,” Khoddam says.
The Cravery also offers soups including its signature tomato bisque. Oven-baked sandwiches, salads, cookies, brownies, fruit bars, and Peet’s coffee are available, too.
The restaurants were designed to evoke a warm bakery feel. While each one is a bit different, every location showcases the oven, which is framed with brick or copper, while bakers work in plain view of the customers. The Cravery’s newest store is a 360-square-foot unit offering takeout in San Francisco. The Los Altos restaurant, located in the downtown area, has a cozy dining room with seating for 40 people.
None of The Cravery’s stores are in prime locations, Khoddam says. Finding affordable locations has been a challenge.
“Every chain in the world is out here,” he says. “Real estate is expensive. Even if we get lucky enough to hear of an ‘A’ location, we’re out there competing with Chipotle or Panera.”
Typically, the company generates 55 to 60 percent of sales from takeout business with the rest coming from dine-in sales. The average check is about $9. A catering order can bump that figure up to more than $10. Catered orders generate at least 20 percent of sales at the Irvine store alone.
To date, the company has not done much to seek out franchisees. Khoddam and Ghaznavi plan to recruit a director of franchising to focus on that aspect of the business, but they want to maintain control of the restaurant concept as much as possible.
“We don’t want someone to buy The Cravery franchise for their son who just graduated from high school or college and doesn’t plan to do any work,” Khoddam says. “We want the owner who invests to actually operate the unit.”
Before going into business together, Khoddam and his uncle worked in different worlds. An accountant by training, Khoddam worked in finance and business management. At one point, he oversaw 208 Office Depot stores that generated $1.5 billion in revenue. Ghaznavi spent decades working in professional kitchens after immigrating to the U.S. from Iran in 1981. One of the highlights of his career was working as the executive pastry chef at the Hotel del Coronado. In that role, he made birthday cakes for Ronald Reagan, Fred Astaire, and other luminaries.
Ghaznavi thought his nephew’s concept for a restaurant had potential.
“Because I had been in the food business all my life, he shared his ideas, and I became very impressed,” Ghaznavi says. “I believe this is the future of food.”
Khoddam feels they must be doing something right when he sees the ultimate authorities on savory pie becoming regular customers.
“You’ve got this Persian guy who goes to South Africa then starts a meat pie concept,” he says, with a laugh. “The South Africans are impressed by that. The British and the New Zealanders are our permanent customers.”