Can a brand measure friendliness? Moe’s Southwest Grill is surely trying. Over the years, Bruce Schroder, the FOCUS Brands’ chain’s president, says Moe’s offbeat persona has stood as more than just a differentiator—it’s a constant point of operational emphasis. The “Welcome to Moe’s!” greeting, for example, is something the 700-unit chain actually actively surveys. Currently, employees are hitting the mark about 90 percent of the time.

“That’s good news and we’re proud of the fact we do it that often,” Schroder says. “But that can work against us unfortunately. When customers don’t hear it, they’re disappointed.”

The insight is invaluable, Schroder adds. In a restaurant landscape stirred by off-premises and convenience, where guests can pick up their phone and scroll through brands quicker than status updates, having a culture this compulsive is worth guarding. And it’s guiding Moe’s through one of the most competitive segments in quick service, even as its unit count and systemwide sales steadily climb.

As the chart below shows, Moe’s 98 percent franchised system has enjoyed a steady rise over the past few years.

But that success is no excuse to stagnate. Schroder believes customer sentiment is fueling the run, as evidenced by recent polls, and is something that needs to be nurtured by the hour. For two of the past three years, guests have picked Moe’s Southwest Grill as America’s top Mexican chain, according to the Harris Poll EquiTrend Study. It topped the survey of 100,000-plus customers in 2016 and 2017, with Taco Bell owning the chart this past year.

How Moe’s accomplished this is far from a simple formula, and it’s something rapidly evolving as the service dynamic shifts. Perhaps the most critical angle, though, is customer engagement. What does that look like with today’s mediums? Moe’s takes the approach that at least once every 90 days it needs to unveil some fresh campaign to speak to its guests. Cinco de Moe’s and Free Queso Day are two of the staples. The Chief Taco Officer search and Tour de Burrito were other recent proprietary ideas that hit the web.

The CTO promotion, to spotlight, was an April campaign where Moe’s launched a nationwide search on social media among its loyalty members to fill the spot with a super fan. It even let customers pick the winner, Kate Munoz. Besides just engaging its base, Moe’s did this to generate interest around a menu launch—Three Amigos Tacos. Munoz led a multi-city food-truck “Taco Tour”—a first for Moe’s—where the brand gave away more than 10,000 free tacos. Lindsay Haynes, Moe’s PR manager, says the social media content drove 1.6 million impressions. It generated $3.5 million in ad equivalence, Schroder adds.


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“So essentially we supplemented our media budget with all that pickup and what a great way to launch a new market, to get all that attention,” he says.

A ‘sneak peek’ at a new menu strategy

What’s also interesting about this program is that it signaled a new menu direction for Moe’s. While campaigns like this prove the chain gets plenty of credit for personality, is the same true of its preparation, sourcing, and ingredients? That was one of the goals of the Tour de Burrito, a four-stop experience that combined a food truck, roving restaurant, and demonstration kitchen in one. Moe’s offered guests an up-close-and-personal look into how much time goes into the product. It was effective, Schroder says, but left plenty of whitespace to fill.

He says Moe’s is conducting further research on how to address that dilemma, and further devise a “show-don’t-tell” strategy. “You’re going to see us move more in that direction to make sure the guest knows the great length that we go to serve them the high-quality experience that we do,” he says.

The Three Amigos Tacos were a sneak preview. These street-style tacos are the start of further Southwest activations. They’re also a move toward more curated choices on the menu. Schroder says one of the downsides of the variety Moe’s offers is that guests have the chance to overbuild their burritos. Or they might combine ingredients that have no place mixed in the same bowl. This is OK for loyal customers, but what about those being introduced to the brand?

“We’re moving in the direction of curating some chef-build signature items that our guests can enjoy,” Schroder says. “Three Amigos was the first time we went out and said hey, try it our way and let us build it for you. Although they still have the opportunity to customize, a lot more people start with what we recommend.”

Off-premises and the danger of overbuilding a burrito

This is doubly critical when it comes to off-premises. Schroder says Moe’s was an early adopter into online ordering and is now involved with third-party delivery. “So the great news is there is all sorts of organic growth outside of the restaurant in those channels,” he says. “But the challenge is, now it’s that much more difficult to get people in the restaurant for the in-restaurant traffic. That’s why you have to be differentiated. You have to have a better experience. Because if somebody can pick up their phone and have 27 options, you’ve got to convince them to get in their car and come to their restaurant instead of just having it delivered to their home.”

Moe’s loyalty app is nearly 3 years old and has grown to more than 2 million users. One leg up is catering, where Moe’s has been a category leader for quite some time. Moe’s integrated its online ordering platform with the loyalty app last year and more than 10 percent of its transactions are made through the platform, which results in an even split between business catering and social catering.

“I’ve been in this industry a long time and this is the toughest environment I’ve been in to try to find talent and then also to hold on to that talent. It’s incumbent upon us to have a unique culture. And when you think about it, we have to market as hard to as our employees as we do to our guests.” — Bruce Schroder, Moe’s president.

That latter note is something Schroder says has shifted. In the past, Moe’s was predominately focused on catering business events—meetings, etc. Lately, the social side has grown to the degree where it’s nearly as big as the business segment. Moe’s even did a rock-star wedding contest where it received hundreds of applications for somebody to win a queso fountain.

In either situation, Schroder says the marketing kickback of catering is indispensable. “It’s the greatest outreach for our brand, right? It’s our best chance to get Moe’s in the mouth of somebody who hasn’t tried us before. Catering is a tremendous trial and marketing vehicle,” he says.

Moe’s has adjusted in other ways. The chain added second make-lines in some locations to keep the incremental business from stuffing throughput. Its had to improve packaging and also start thinking about what off-premises guests are ordering, and if it can manage the process to some extent. Schroder says, in time, he envisions Moe’s having an off-premises specific menu where it can provide items that travel well and don’t result in a poor experience for new guests. Once again, guiding guests to the ideal culinary experience.

The allure of ‘Roadies’

Across all of these changes, the labor aspect remains essential to Moe’s business.

“I’ve been in this industry a long time and this is the toughest environment I’ve been in to try to find talent and then also to hold on to that talent. It’s incumbent upon us to have a unique culture. And when you think about it, we have to market as hard to as our employees as we do to our guests,” Schroder says.

Solving that a “sum of all parts,” kind of effort. It starts with pride and affiliation with a company that employees admire—a goal more important than ever with younger generations flooding the workforce. Moe’s calls its employees “Roadies,” which essentially refers to the idea that they treat guests as rock stars. “Then it also gives them a sense of belonging because you can only be a roadie at Moe’s and have that affiliation,” Schroder says.

In addition, Moe’s deploys a comprehensive learning management system designed to get employees confident in the process. If they’re knowledgeable, Schroder says, they can focus more on the guest interaction. And, more than anything, this back-and-forth between Moe’s and its guests is what’s fueling the entire process. Whether that’s digital or in-person, the positive perception can’t be understated. “You have to give people a reason to have another category entrant in this crowded category,” Schroder says. “If they’ve already got some of our competitors, why do you they really need Moe’s? Now we’re giving them that reason, and we will continue to do so every day.”

Fast Casual, Web Exclusives, Moe's Southwest Grill