In a matter of six weeks, Moe’s Southwest Grill transformed its business. But it was more of an acceleration than a massive pivot. The 700-unit FOCUS Brands’ chain had a two-year innovation calendar working behind the scenes. As we’ve seen across the restaurant landscape, COVID-19 conditions simply sent this long-term plan into overdrive.

Delivery through its app and website, curbside pickup, and new dining occasions, like family meal kits and an online neighborhood market, have helped Moe’s navigate crisis times.

Jon Gilliam, Moe’s VP of operations and retail technology, chatted with QSR about the company’s response strategy, and what lies ahead.

Take us back to the early days of COVID-19. When did your restaurants start preparing? And was there a point you realized how severe this was going to be?

We started preparing our franchisees for the potential impact of COVID-19 in the beginning of March by sharing guidelines and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Moe’s Southwest Grill has a portfolio of more than 700 restaurants across the U.S. so we immediately started planning for various scenarios based on how dramatically customer’s behaviors could change in the weeks and months ahead.

What were some of the first steps you took?

One of the first steps we took at Moe’s was adding additional cleaning and sanitation tools and processes to our daily operations and changed the functionality of any high-touch areas in our restaurants with a single touch solution. For example, the self-serve salsa bar was a brand hallmark at Moe’s because we offer free chips and salsa with every order. Instead of making it self-serve, we pre-portioned our delicious salsas into small containers with lids for guests to easily pick up as many as they wanted. We also took a broad evaluation of opportunities in the marketplace to meet the increased demand from consumers of eating at home. Leveraging an existing pipeline of food innovation allowed Moe’s to react quickly on family meal options (more specifics are included below.) Lastly, our efforts were further supported by our franchisees that immediately collaborated and shared best practices from operations, supply chain and technology, among other areas, which helped put our initiatives into motion.

How have you supported operators and employees during this time?

We’ve been in constant communications with our franchisees and operators through weekly (sometimes more often) webinars and calls. During these meetings, we share details about our brand’s crisis recovery plan but more importantly, we give individual franchisees the opportunity to learn from each other. Each week, a few franchisees share best practices—marketing a new product in a different way, creating more efficient prep times and how best to operate with a smaller crew, etc. Learning from each other has helped franchisees large and small.

How have you mobilized to meet the increased carryout and delivery sales?

Moe’s was positioned strongly in advance of COVID-19 with a two-year innovation calendar and a team able to absorb change. In a matter of six weeks, the brand executed initiatives from the innovation pipeline including delivery through the Moe’s app and website, curbside pickup and new dining occasions such as family meal kits and Moe’s Market, an online neighborhood market for our communities to browse and stock up on freshly prepared protein, sides and dips.

How has the off-premises business grown since COVID-19?

Like all restaurant brands during this time, we’ve seen a significant shift from in-restaurant sales to off-premise sales including to-go, curbside pickup and delivery. Through partnerships with national partners like Uber Eats, Grub Hub and DoorDash and offering free delivery on the Moe’s app and website, we made sure that Moe’s could continue to provide the delicious meals customers were craving.

What are some key ways you’ve driven that expansion? What advice would you give to other restaurants trying to pivot during these crazy times?

My advice is around taking care of your employees and customers while executing quickly. Your employees are everything; make sure they are safe, comfortable and informed. Meet your customers where they are and if there is a need in your local community, find a way to be a solution and provide extreme convenience for your customers. Lastly, this is a time where innovation and speed to market are imperative to success.

When we finally get past this, what do you think the restaurant industry will look like on the other side? What will be some of the biggest changes?

Customer behavior has significantly changed and won’t immediately go back to the way it was before COVID-19. The hyper-awareness of safety and sanitation is here to stay with preventative measures in all retail and restaurants including social distancing, masks, sanitizer, increase in hand washing, etc. Additionally, consumers will not return to in-restaurant dining as frequently as they once did; instead, they will turn to delivery and pickup options. The convenience of making sure that consumers can enjoy delicious meals from Moe’s wherever they are, whenever they want is more critical than ever.

What do you think the early days will look like? Do you expect a slow, gradual climb back into normalcy? Or do you think people will rush back?

We expect changes in dining habits with a focus on a restaurants meeting customers where they are with options like curbside pickup and family meal kits to-go.

And what are some steps restaurants can take to make sure they’re ready for business when it returns?

In addition to complying with all local, state and federal laws—ensure that you spend the time to do comprehensive training programs for your teams based on new operational procedures. Just as there are a lot of changes from a consumer’s perspective, your restaurant teams will have to adjust to this new normal, feel safe and perform well.

Why did you introduce Moe’s Good Neighbor? Why is it so essential for franchisees to give back to their local communities? Any particular stories that stand out?

At the very beginning of COVID-19, our franchisees immediately stood up to help their local communities in any way that they knew how. Across our portfolio of more than 700 restaurants, we have provided thousands of meals to healthcare workers and first responders. We have a private Moe’s Crew Facebook group for our franchisees, operators and crew and we quickly saw countless local stories that deserved to be highlighted. Jenny Williams, Senior Marketing Director quickly jumped into action in partnership with Robby Ayala, Content Manager and Oust, a creative studio in Atlanta, to develop this campaign using Zoom to showcase these stories. Individual franchisees will be profiled over the coming weeks.

Jeff Feus, a franchisee with two restaurants in Beaufort, South Carolina is exceptionally connected to his local community. He immediately started engaging with consumers on Facebook posting content—like a video on how NOT to do curbside delivery which received more than 26,000 views. Feus embodies the Moe’s DNA by supporting his local community, giving back and showing his crew that working at Moe’s is more than a job, it’s a family-owned burrito shop where every day, you’re going to have fun.

How has Moe’s Market impacted sales? Any other revenue generators that have helped ease the losses from COVID-19?

Moe’s Market was a franchisee-led idea, as operators they saw an unmet need in their local community—grocery stores were running low or completely out of items that consumers were looking for like chicken, beef and fresh produce. As a result, in a matter of days, we launched Moe’s Market to fill that need. Customers are loving the ability to buy their Moe’s favorites in bulk—and the most popular items are chips and queso, of course.

Business Advice, Customer Experience, Fast Casual, Story, Moe's Southwest Grill