Welsh says development slowed during the pandemic, but only momentarily. Since March, Qdoba has opened 15 restaurants, and it’s planning to open more than 15 before the end of the year. There’s about 40 in the pipeline for 2021, but as the brand brings on new partners and investments, Welsh says that number may grow. Ultimately, Qdoba wants to reach a pace of more than 100 units per year.
Target markets include Arizona, Southern California, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Texas, New England, Pennsylvania, and New England. Welsh expects real estate to be favorable as COVID continues to desaturate the restaurant industry.
“We take a three-pronged approach to everything we do, whether it's in the restaurants or how we're looking at strategic hospitality, positivity, and performance,” Welsh says. “So we take that approach also to our real estate partners. The landlord community was a great partner. We think we treated each other really well through the pandemic and as a result of that, we have deep relationships. And we do believe there will be opportunities, and the fact that we have now a suite of footprints that offer flexibility—we're not just a one size fits all. That allows us to look in more places and partner and go into smaller locations, drive-thru locations, endcap locations. So we think we're positioned to take advantage of real estate opportunities.”
Welsh says that in many ways, Qdoba thinks of itself as a startup company. In 2017, it was carved out of Jack in the Box and sold to Apollo Global Management, LLC for $305 million.
He notes that since then, Qdoba has reestablished itself as a sole company. In doing so, it found and designed a new office space that’s modern, open, and collaborative—a mentality that has a startup energy to it. Welsh says CEO Keith Guilbault has infused a culture that’s unlike anywhere else in the industry.
The restaurant vet says the culture provides an energy and passion for the brand, starting from the corporate headquarters, all the way to the restaurants. It enables Qdoba to pivot quickly without being bogged down in bureaucracies.
All of that momentum has led to this point, and Qdoba is prepared to take advantage of the opportunity.
“We've done lots of different modeling and looking at what saturation and growth could look like,” Welsh says. “We believe that there's a long runway to continue to expand. Even with our current markets in the national footprint, there's plenty of new markets to invest in. There's plenty of new opportunities to grow and for franchisees to build out a territory. And then really, we believe that there's international appeal. We have partners in Canada currently, and we think that there's ability to grow from beyond there. The foundation that we've been able to set over the last two years, the research and passionate we bring to the segments, and I think the strength of our food—and really at the end of day it's about the food and the flavors that we offer, bringing people together—we really think that there's tremendous amount of opportunity both short and long term.”