Moe’s Southwest Grill, founded in Atlanta in 2000, has more than 700 locations in North America. The chain offers free house-made chips and salsa with every order — and everyone boasts about the chain’s queso. Perhaps even more importantly, the brand is known for its warm greeting. Every time a guest enters an establishment, staff greet them with a hearty “Welcome to Moe’s!”The Mexican fast-casual space is popular and sometimes overcrowded. For that reason, brand differentiation becomes extremely important to succeed in the segment.
Alex Williams, chief brand officer for Moe’s Southwest Grill, discusses the chain’s new focus on drive-thru and what his team learned from the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A lot has changed in the world since the debut of Moe’s last prototype in 2019. What has happened with the chain since we talked to you last?
AW: So, unfortunately, when the pandemic hit, a lot of our work at the time was halted. We did continue with the upgrading of our facilities, but we looked at it from a two-pronged approach. One, we wanted to elevate the guest experience — as well as our crew experience — and we wanted to update some of our operational model pieces.
We developed a new Moe’s logo that had a cool design featuring black, white and teal. We kept the peppers as part of the brand’s heritage as we transitioned into the new logo.
We also took time to focus on enhancing our app. Restaurant interiors were closed, and we wanted to give people the ability to order Moe’s at their convenience and to make ordering easier. We also went through an elevation in our food’s quality, really elevating the proteins. We had taken white meat chicken off [of the menu] so we put it back in. That elevated quality brought people back to Moe’s who used to love it. We also developed a couple of new craveable menu options. We took our signature burrito, the Homewrecker, and upped it to be on a 14-inch tortilla. We added another fan favorite — the steak and potato burrito — and it was a huge hit. People then took the potatoes and added them to other items and even ordered them as a side item. So, it really created a lot of engagement around the offering. We are also offering the new buffalo queso taco. Additionally, from a food perspective, we implemented catered family meal options and we added taco and fajita meal kits that really took off during the pandemic. People really enjoyed those and are taking them to shareable occasions with family. We even saw people use those options during shareable occasions like the Super Bowl and March Madness.
We also implemented some new metal serving trays in the restaurant that gave a nice modern touch to the ways in which people took their food inside the restaurant.
And you upgraded some operational elements as well?
AW: From the operational model perspective, we did a couple of things that really enhanced the overall experience for our crew and our guests. We updated our back-office system and that allowed us to execute on the app. We implemented a new POS system, which gave the opportunity to our crew to earn tips, and that’s working well. We also implemented a new “Welcome to Moe’s” service model, which was really trying to optimize the guest experience. So, not only did you hear “Welcome to Moe’s” when youwalked inside, you felt it when you came into the restaurant whether you got the food in person or via the app, directly or via third-person delivery. Guests want the “Welcome to Moe’s” experience they get inside the restaurant, so when you open that meal kit box there’s a bunch of sayings and artwork that makes you feel like you’re in a Moe’s.
What did Moe’s learn during the pandemic and what will the chain take forward?
AW: That’s a great question. We learned during the pandemic that drive-thru restaurants have been a huge hit. We’ve seen significant sales increases in the four new drive-thrus we opened in the last seven months. Guests love that experience. We built the drive-thrus new but they have been so successful, we are going back to retrofit existing units. Some units had a kiosk at the drive-thru where the guest would order but we think a typical drive-thru provides a faster guest experience and improved sales.
I think the thing we learned above all else is that guests want an experience that’s convenient and easy to execute. Restaurants that had drive-thrus really performed extremely well, which is why we’re focusing on that area. Guests want an experience that is equal to the one they get inside the restaurant, so we developed the meal kits and that was a great way to get guests to have the same experience with great quality food and service.
What part will technology play in Moe’s future?
AW: Technology will be an enabler for us going forward. It will enable us to provide curbside pickup. It will enable us to continue to develop the app. Tools in the new POS system enabled us to offer tips to employees. I think digital menu boards will play a strong part in our future by making it easier to market new menu items. We could push menu items based on local weather, for example. It will enable us to make price changes efficiently and as needed. Digital menu boards will play a significant role in that area and other enhancements.
What are Moe’s key strengths?
AW: This is the question that called me to join the brand. When you walk into Moe’s you hear the “Welcome to Moe’s” love. And you expect it when you walk into Moe’s. And if you don’t get it, it’s a source of disappointment. So, our first key strength is that we share the Welcome to Moe’s love. Secondly, our food is special. When you think about the Homewrecker, you think about free chips and salsa, all made in-house. And then the best queso in the industry. That is what makes this brand the most special and what people celebrate us for. Finally, it’s the people. The people deliver that “Welcome to Moe’s” love every day. They make sure the experience is a lasting experience that causes people to want to come back. When you’re having a bad day, you want to hear that greeting.