For Moe’s Southwest Grill, the Future Is in the Buffalo Blue Sauce

Staff Writer
The Southwestern chain faces challenges as it continues its rapid expansion
Restaurant Nutrition.com
Paul Damico, Moe's President

The world of Mexican fast-casual restaurants in the United States is a hotly competitive one, dominated by the juggernaut Chipotle, and Qdoba in second. But rapidly rising up like a frying sopapilla is Moe’s Southwest Grill, which recently opened its 500th location.

Growth is the word for Moe’s, the joint that began in Atlanta in 2000 and now extends to many parts of the United States, plus Costa Rica and Russia. After being acquired by Focus Brands in 2007, the private equity group that also owns such brands as Cinnabon and Auntie Anne’s, leadership of Moe’s was assumed by Paul Damico, who was trained as a chef at Johnson & Wales before becoming president of the brand, and spent his first fifteen years with Marriott’s food service division.

Damico stresses all-new initiatives in his plan for Moe’s growth to build on what the company sees as its strengths. The restaurant’s goal is to use quality ingredients, such as grass-fed steak, in all of its locations, all of the time. “If it’s on the menu, it’s always available, everywhere,” Damico told the Daily Meal. Further distinguishing it from its competitors, mainly Chipotle and Qdoba, Moe’s features a growing kids’ menu, plus free chips and salsa; the chips are made on-site, every day, in every location, in full view of customers. Also, in addition to its all-natural salsa bar, the menu offers two types of beans, five proteins, and twenty ingredients in its burritos, stacks, quesadillas, nachos, and tacos. Many of these innovations arose after an effective overhaul of the chain when Focus Brands acquired it six years ago, which involved such structural changes as new booths and interior designs in all locations.

By 2015, the goal for Moe’s is to open one new restaurant every three days. That’s a lot, but Damico is confident that it’s feasible. Around 150,000 customers are served each day, according to Damico, and that number is growing. Currently, the chain is looking to expand west of the Mississippi River, where it doesn’t now have as strong a presence as in the east, and there have been talks to venture into the Middle East and India.

Of course, much of this proposed growth, Damico says, hinges on continuous development of the menu, and in that department Moe’s Southwest Grill faces some challenges. Recently, the chimichiurri burrito, one of its promoted limited-time offerings, failed to meet sales goals and was promptly removed. In addition, the company has removed 50% of the sodium from its menu, “and the challenge there is to make sure we don’t lose the flavor,” according to Damico. Moe’s will need to quickly develop solutions to every issue that arises in order to grow and effectively compete in a market with a behemoth like Chipotle.

But the chain is actively engaged in giving diners a reason to go to Moe’s over the competition, as development of its food options takes place at all levels of the company, based off of a locked down supply chain. Its new Adobo Gold BBQ sauce has been successful this year, and Moe’s is looking at launching a new Tamale Bowl concept in the fourth quarter of 2013: a kind of burrito bowl with masa in place of rice. “Once we get as big as 1,000 locations,” Damico says, “we’ll be able to start dabbling in stuff like farm to table, and local sourcing.”

But there’s more. In an exclusive interview with the Daily Meal, Damico revealed plans for a new element on the Moe’s menu: Buffalo Blue, a combination of Texas Pete’s hot sauce, blue cheese, and celery, as an add-on to burritos.

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