Emerging Concepts | October 2012 | By Judy Kneiszel

One to Watch: Smiling Moose Deli

Midwest sandwich chain plans to track its way across the country with slow and steady expansion.

Smiling Moose Deli offers signature sandwiches to diners across the Midwest.
Smiling Moose Deli
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Smiling Moose Deli’s average unit volume is up almost 40 percent this year, and for that, president and founder Kevin Sloane has women to thank.

“When we first started, all we had were hearty New York–style sub sandwiches,” he says. “Now we do a custom chopped salad bar where guests can pick all of their toppings, and that alone opened a broader demographic, especially on the female side. Our customer makeup was 65 percent men. Now it’s 50-50.”

Don’t think the Moose is going soft, though. Its signature sandwich is still the Mighty Mo, a cheeseburger grinder that Sloan believes could someday be as iconic as the Philly Cheesesteak.

Smiling Moose Deli

Founder & President: Kevin Sloane

HQ: Boulder, Colorado

Year Started: 2003

Annual Sales: $15 million

Total Units:19

Franchise units: 16

www.smilingmoosedeli.com

“We take fresh ground beef and melt cheese into it and serve it on a baguette with lettuce, tomato, mayo, and banana peppers,” Sloane says. “It’s just to die for.”

A 12-inch Mighty Mo sells for $8.79; a 6-inch is $6.69. There are also variations on the Mo, like the Sloppy Mo with barbeque sauce; the Southwest Mo with salsa, jalapenos, and chipotle mayo; and the Veggie Mo, which substitutes a black bean burger for the ground beef.

For the refined Moose, there’s the Parisian, with grilled chicken breast, melted Brie, avocado, sundried tomato, and pesto mayo.

“One thing we pride ourselves on is that we’re not just toasting sandwiches here. We have a full kitchen, so we’re using freshly grilled chicken,” Sloane says. “We also make all of our own soups and salad dressings.”

Sloane says Smiling Moose Deli is one of the only sandwich concepts to have convection ovens and flat-top grills. “We require a bit more kitchen space, but we’ve had some incredibly creative designers,” he says.

Sloane has been in the restaurant business since he was 14-years-old, and he owned his first full-service restaurant at the age of 20. “I’ve lived, eaten, and breathed the restaurant business my entire life except for a brief stint as an airline pilot in the Caribbean,” he says. When he realized he could make more money serving sandwiches, he landed in Vail, Colorado, with Smiling Moose Deli, his first foray into the quick-serve category.

“I love the energy level of a quick serve,” Sloan says. “But instead of calling the Smiling Moose fast casual, I call it ‘fresh casual.’”

From the first location in Vail, the Smiling Moose made tracks through Colorado, stopping to open 10 locations. The Smiling Moose even has broken loose in Texas, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, Indiana, and Wisconsin. There are currently 11 new stores in development, and Sloane anticipates opening at a rate of three or four each year.

“We want to grow as fast as it makes sense to grow,” he says. “We don’t want to open new locations too fast. We want to make sure we have the right team in place first.

“We want to be able to please our franchisees so they can develop further in their markets,” Sloane continues. “Four of our franchisees bought one location and then the rights to the entire state that they are in. Successful franchisees … that’s our goal. They are our business partners. Their success is our success.”

The Smiling Moose Deli is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “Breakfast is something we’ve always done,” Sloane says. “In our urban and resort markets, we have good morning traffic and it’s a big part of our catering program.”

Breakfast items include sandwiches like The Morning Moose made with ham, bacon, or sausage; scrambled eggs; and melted Cheddar cheese on a toasted bagel or Kaiser roll. The Mountain Sunrise is a breakfast burrito made with scrambled eggs, sausage, seared spinach, roasted red peppers, and melted Pepper Jack cheese wrapped in a tortilla.

Many menu items, like the Morning Moose, are available gluten free. The bread used for those items is an exclusive recipe for gluten-free baguettes, which The Smiling Moose also sells in bulk in all of its stores. Sloane says the gluten-free menu is one of its biggest successes.

Catering, which makes up about 20 percent of sales, is another winning factor. In fact, the catering business, along with a high number of house-made soups, salads, and other items, means there’s so much prep work keeping the Smiling Moose crews busy in the evening that it makes sense to stay open for dinner.

“We figured as long as we were there prepping, we might as well open the doors,” Sloane says. “The lion’s share of our business is still lunch, but other meals complement that when we’re prepping.”

He says the Smiling Moose doesn’t do a lot of traditional advertising, but rather what he calls “gorilla marketing.”

“We like going right into office buildings to get catering clients,” Sloane says. “And a lot of it is word of mouth. We feel that wowing the customer so they tell others is the best kind of marketing.”

The Smiling Moose is also into social marketing, including Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp, but franchisees are encouraged to be social offline as well.

“Our franchisees join their local Chamber of Commerce, sponsor softball teams, and get involved with kids’ teams,” Sloane says. “They tend to be young and energetic, so they are involved in that kind of thing in their communities anyway.”

And what community wouldn’t respond to a free cookie? “We fresh bake our cookies from our own recipe every day for lunch,” Sloane says. “And on Wednesdays, if you order a large sandwich, salad, or wrap, you get a free cookie. It’s our way of trying to make people’s days a little better.”