Smokey Mo’s wants to etch its name into the pantheon of Texas barbecue royalty.
The restaurant opened its first location in Cedar Park, Texas, more than 20 years ago and is now undergoing a renaissance after being acquired by private equity firm Switchback Capital earlier this year.
The rebranding efforts will feature several new prototypes, digital upgrades, and an accelerated franchise program, though CEO Craig Haley says the brand’s growth strategy is more “the speed of right” than the speed of light.
“We’re creating a company that can grow,” Haley says. “Smokey Mo’s was founded on amazing barbecue, great recipes, and great customer service. We’re not interested in changing a lot of those founding principles. We want to lean into those. We’re looking to transition into building new restaurants and creating a kitchen and operating system that will help improve some of the processes and operations already in place.”
Currently, Smokey Mo’s has 16 units throughout Texas, but the chain is planning to debut 32 locations in the next three years. Twenty of those will be franchised stores, while the remaining 12 will be company-owned.
The first three outlets will be new builds, but as the brand looks to penetrate further into metropolitan markets like Austin, it will consider second-generation opportunities.
The new builds’ design will come from one of several prototypes geared toward streamlining operations. One of the main purposes is developing clearer pathways for preparing and delivering food to guests during peak hours. The new layout will also include an open view of the smokers, which Haley says are a big feature of the brand.
“We wanted to make sure people understood that we were smoking on site,” he says. “This is a big part of smoking because a lot of barbecue restaurants don’t smoke on site, specifically smaller box restaurants. A lot of them don’t have smokers in their restaurants, and we wanted to make sure that it was a focal point and that we emphasized it.”
New digital menu boards will also be in the rebrand. Haley says though upgrades will be modern, Smokey Mo’s wants to keep a personable, neighborhood feel, such as eye-catching decorations. Hanging lights and metal chairs will fill the dining room, as will communal wooden benches and other minimalist-styled furniture.
“We’re a neighborhood barbecue restaurant and we want each Smokey Mo’s to feel a little bit different,” he says. “You’re going to see some unique looks and feels in each store and it will be tied into the community [where the unit is located]. We think that’s a very important part of Smokey Mo’s. We want the Smokey Mo’s you visit to feel like yours. As we’re building the new restaurants we want to make sure folks feel like this is a brand they can believe in. That yes, it’s been around for a while, but it’s also current.”
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Along with a structural makeover, Smokey Mo’s will introduce new tech throughout the system. There won’t be digital kiosks or AI taking call-in orders, but there will be systematic upgrades. Most will come in the back of house, where a new POS system and updated online ordering platform are being put into place. There is also talk of creating a loyalty program, but that’s still in the beginning stages.
“We’ve certainly looked at kiosks and it is an option potentially in the future, but a big part of what Smokey Mo’s offers is friendly service,” Haley says. “I think having a person to talk to and understand barbecue is important, because we get a lot of questions from customers when they’re ordering. If you’re ordering a burger or a chicken sandwich there aren’t a whole lot of questions to ask, but barbecue requires a little bit more of a back and forth. People like their barbecue how they like it.”
Tech enhancements will also be aimed at improving training procedures. Haley says utilizing video modules will help with the onboarding process. For instance, if someone needs a reminder on how to cut brisket, there will be a video to provide a quick and thorough refresher of how Smokey Mo’s wants things done.
Virtual training will ensure every unit is using the same material. Haley says the amount of space taken up by endless stacks of papers and folders can lead to confusion and old training methods being used.
“It makes it much easier to update your training materials,” he says. “That’s really important for a company like us where we’re really focused on improvement.”
Expanding a brand is never easy, especially at a time when supply chain stoppages have pushed back lead times on necessary kitchen and restaurant equipment. That’s why Haley is content with a slow and steady pace. The plan in place accounts for delays, giving the executive confidence in the brand’s stated unit development goal.
The company believes in the long-term approach, including partnering with the right franchisees. Smokey Mo’s is looking for operators with at least three to five years of upper management experience in the industry. If a group of investors is interested in partnering with the brand, at least one of the members will need the requisite experience.
The restaurant wants to sign agreements for three or more locations as opposed to single-unit deals. Most importantly, Haley says, franchisees need to be passionate about Texas barbecue and customer service.
“That’s hugely important for us,” he says. “The product and the people. Taking care of the guests and an understanding of what friendly service is plays a big role in our selection process. We look at each new partnership like a marriage. If you’re going to get married to someone, you want to make sure they share the same values and are compatible. We don’t want to end up in divorce.”
With the rebrand in the works and new stores set to open later this year, Haley feels good about Smokey Mo’s trajectory.
“Our vision is to be the best neighborhood barbecue in Texas,” he says. “We’re incredibly excited about it.”