It has been 17 years since Moe’s Southwest Grill was founded in Atlanta. More than 700 restaurants later, pretty much nothing about the fast casual’s competition looks the same. The Mexican segment is deeper and fiercer than ever. And while Moe’s has been a nimble adjuster over the decades, leaders of the Focus Brands chain recognized 2017 as an opportunity to turn the mirror around.
The results: Some shockers, but also this: “When we contrasted the personality of brands within our segment, they called us the cool uncle,” says Bruce Schroder, Moe’s president. “We don’t see that changing.”
That reality—that customers revere the brand’s outlaw vibe—was backed by Harris Poll’s annual EquiTrend Study, where Moe’s earned top honors in its category for the second straight year. That’s the good news. What Schroder and the team found frustrating, however, was where Moe’s wasn’t getting credit. Namely, in its dedication to preparation and fresh ingredients.
“We spend a lot of time, energy, and money to prep fresh food every day and offer a tremendous amount of variety and high quality in our food,” he says. “But because of the nature of how we operate, whether we do a lot of prep early in the morning or you don’t see the meat cooking all the time, we learned that we weren’t always getting recognized for it.”
Those issues have a dramatic long-term solution. Moe’s isn’t ready to share what that means exactly, only that the chain is reconfiguring its restaurants and brand to better tell that story. But in the short-term, Moe’s had a solution that checked off the two most important boxes: Showcase what guests are missing; and keep it light-hearted, fun, and very Moe’s-like at the same time.
In seven hours, Moe’s sold out tickets to a four-state tour that’s a combination of food truck, roving restaurant, and demonstration kitchen. November 2–3, Moe’s headed to Broome Street in New York City. On Monday and Tuesday the brand invaded Atlanta. Thursday Moe’s is going to Orlando, Florida, and, the following day, the experience closes in Tampa.
Moe’s is labeling the event “Tour de Burrito.” Moe’s parks its traveling restaurant, which seats groups of 10 at a time, and invites guests for a one-on-one experience with the chain’s culinary team. Schroder says people will be able to smell the cilantro. See the tomatoes chopped.
“That’s the best way for them to experience the brand,” he says. “What this promotion is all about is leveraging our strengths and also addressing the things we don’t get credit for. It’s all about having a chance to tell our story. What we heard loud and clear was, ‘Show, don’t tell,’ and that’s what this promo is about. We’re going to show the great lengths that we go to prep our food every day and the eye for quality we have on sourcing our ingredients.”
There has to be some tell involved as well, Schroder says. For example, he wants people to know Moe’s uses nearly 25,000 pounds of tomatoes, 10,000 pounds of onions, 41,000 pounds of salsa, 60,000 pounds of chips, and almost 3,000 pounds of jalapeños and cilantro each day. And all of those ingredients are traceable to the source.
This promotion, and what’s coming next, are moves intended to help Moe’s cement its core and expand market share. Schroder says that, eventually, Moe’s will bring food preparation out in front for customers to see.
Those details will give Moe’s an advantage and help the chain close the gap. Ever since 2008, when growth across the industry tightened, Schroder says the Mexican segment has boomed. In the past three years, it’s expanded more than 10 percent to a pool of 20,000 or so restaurants.
Moe’s has its hooks in a couple of key areas that are driving universal growth. The chain has featured online ordering for about five years and has grown its catering business exponentially year-over-year. In 2016, Moe’s reported north of $668 million in systemwide sales.
The chain’s loyalty and online ordering services are integrated and running smoothly, Schroder says. Third-party delivery is something he adds that Moe’s is still tinkering with.
And most importantly, Moe’s branding remains steadfast. Schroder says it helps being a franchise-heavy system. Operators who join are already glued into that culture. “The personality of our individual franchisees comes through. They enjoy that part of the brand. That’s why they got associated with Moe’s,” he says.