Three displaced Alabama boys turned a shared love of barbecue and soul food into a burgeoning fast-casual chain.
Moe's Original Bar B Que and that's just the way its founders like it. It's barbecue, after all, and that, to the three long-time friends and business partners, means keeping things casual, comfortable and simply focused on great food and southern-style hospitality. It's a formula that's brought the trio from a converted horse trailer with a pit smoker fashioned from junkyard finds in 2001 to emerging chain status today. Moe's Original Bar B Que operates 20 brick-and-mortar units and through franchising expects to add nine or 10 more before the end of next year.There's nothing fancy about
The partners, Jeff Kennedy, Mike Fernandez and Ben Gilbert (a.k.a. the 'Bama Boys), met while attending the University of Alabama, each working his way through college in the hospitality industry. Fernandez soon left to attend Johnson & Wales culinary school in Vail, Colo. After graduating, Kennedy and Gilbert followed, more intent on skiing than on launching a business. But their own cravings for Alabama-style barbecue and the lack of barbecue in the Vail market soon had them cooking up an idea for a restaurant to fill the void.
"We bought a horse trailer and turned it into a legal kitchen, pulled it down to a corner in Vail that we rented for the summer and started selling," Kennedy says. "That first summer was a hit. We realized what a demand there was here given the lack of any type of barbecue or soul food in the mountains. We still have that original trailer and use it for parties and events. Most of our locations have a version of it, as well. It's a fun thing, but there's only so much you can do out of a trailer so we moved to freestanding restaurants and started rolling."
Moe's locations today include nine in Colorado, eight in Alabama, and one each in North Carolina, Georgia and Maine. Most of the restaurant chain's growth has been organic, with friends, family and committed managers opening their own units. While that's the type of growth the founders are most comfortable with, they've also started franchising beyond their tight-knit community, seeking like-minded individuals passionate about the concept to take it forward.
"We're very pleased with where we are at this point. We don't want to grow too fast because we feel that our concept and barbecue/soul food in general is a very engaging, personal experience," Kennedy says. "We're happy with adding about six units per year right now. We feel like if you start to sell out your soul you lose a lot of what barbecue is about."
Each Unit Distinctive
While the menu and fundamental operations remain consistent system wide, each Moe's franchise partner can develop a distinct feel and character for his/her units. The partners say they have no interest in growing as a "cookie-cutter" chain.
Each location serves alcohol, but the bar business is more prevalent in some units than others. For example, a couple of locations serve as barbecue and blues joints, with an emphasis on the bar business and a live music scene at night. The company also has a corporate partnership in a barbecue and bowling venue in Denver. Other units are straight-up barbecue joints, with food being the primary focus and bar secondary.
"We don't have a prototype that we're working toward, per se," Kennedy says. "Each location needs to have an infrastructure that works for us, but our system is so simple that we can go into almost any pre-existing restaurant space and make it work. We just opened a unit in Maine that was a former KFC building. At the beach, we have a little mom-and-pop shop with a very minimal kitchen and an outdoor smoke house. Whatever space our partners are interested in, we fly out and check it out. If we feel it can work, we can retrofit it for our needs. That's an especially unique part of what Moe's is. When you walk in to any of our stores, you know immediately that it's a Moe's but it's also very unique. The more streamlined we can make the flow and the systems the better, but as far as every restaurant looking and feeling the same, I don't think that'll ever happen."
That said, the company looks for a few common elements during site selection: freestanding buildings with an average of 2,500 square feet, ample parking, an open kitchen and local regulations that are friendly to barbecue smoking. Ideal sites are former restaurants that already have floor drains and grease traps in place, making retrofits quicker and more cost effective for franchisees. In fact, with the exception of one custom-built corporate location in Vail, Moe's has expanded by converting existing restaurant spaces.
Total unit cost ranges from slightly less than $200,000 to slightly more than $400,000, with the basic equipment and smallwares package running $25,000 to $55,000. "We opened our first units on a shoestring and it's been important to us to keep costs down," Kennedy says. "Our approach has been to go into a market spending as little as possible, to prove ourselves and our food to that community. Then, as we start to put some money in the bank, we look for that next step in the area, for the restaurant we really want versus the one that we can open for $100,000."
As the chain has grown and streamlined its processes, Kennedy adds, the timeframe for the units to begin making money has shortened dramatically. Most new units now make money right off the bat, he says, a scenario that's leading corporate to rethink its traditional bare-bones budget approach and reliance on used equipment.
"We're not fans of going in and spending a ton of money on build-outs. We like for people to get involved on a minimal budget, to prove themselves, learn how to run the business and lead people, and then stair-step up just like we did," he says. "But we're at a point where we've started steering our partners away from going in with a bunch of old equipment. We still go for some used stuff, but not for things like the pit and refrigeration. It's worth spending the extra money to buy new equipment that'll last. You want to be focusing on food quality and taking care of customers, not on constantly fixing your kitchen."
Celebrating Southern Soul Food
Barbecue remains the star of the show at Moe's, pulled pork and ribs, in particular, but smoked chicken and turkey, as well. It's sold in sandwiches and platters with choice of two sides and a drink. Tomato-based red barbecue sauce, vinegar-based "sop" sauce, and Alabama-style mayonnaise-based white sauce accompany menu items. The menu also includes larger "double-wide" and "triple-wide" family packs, primarily for takeout, which, on average, represent 15 percent to 20 percent of sales.
The menu's dry-rubbed meats spend several hours in a hardwood pit smoker before being finished in slow cook-and-hold ovens, the workhorse pieces of equipment in every Moe's kitchen. Partner Mike Fernandez has worked to streamline both food and equipment sourcing and to secure national pricing from suppliers. On the equipment side, a major cost-saving step is a recent agreement with the company's pit supplier to provide them system wide at significantly discounted prices.
The pit itself resembles a large pizza oven, Kennedy says. "It's a self-contained wood-fired smoker that looks like a big stainless steel box with five rotating shelves. We're able to burn full-size hardwood logs without actually putting it under a hood," he notes. "We smoke all of our proteins in it, using applewood here in Colorado and oak in the South. Oak gives a smokier, more intense flavor, which is more popular with people who grew up with traditional southern-style barbecue. Applewood produces a less-intense, sweeter smoked flavor, which is very popular in other markets."
Moe's menu also includes catfish, shrimp "Moe Boy" sandwiches, and specials like southern fried chicken on Sundays. A standard line-up of sides includes slaw, potato salad, baked beans, chips and banana pudding, but the concept delivers on its promise of a "Southern Soul Food Revival" with a selection of small-batch special sides available each day. "That's how we combine our favorite genres of food, which are barbecue and soul food," Kennedy says. "Every day, in addition to our regular menu, we do five or six different sides that range from black eyed peas, to fried okra to sweet potatoes. It makes for a lot of variety, with something different on the menu almost every day of the week." Sides are available in half-pint and pint sizes for takeout, as well as individual meal accompaniments.
Service style is fast-casual, with customers ordering at a front counter behind which hangs a large menu board. While standing at the point of sale, customers can also see the action in an open kitchen and interact with the cooks. They get their drink cups, find a table and usually by that time, Kennedy says, a staff member is calling their order for pick-up or delivering it to their table. "Wherever possible, pick-up at the counter is the model we like. But about half of the units have pick-up and about half have food delivered to the tables," he notes.
The casual dining rooms average 60 to 70 seats and feature natural woods, sports and music related artwork, and multiple flat-screen TVs to appeal to sports fans. Most units feature multiple types and levels of seating — larger tables for family-style dining, booths and high tops. Most also feature a stage area with additional seating on a slightly higher level.
Simple, Efficient Kitchens
In the back of the house, operations are simple and efficient and few changes beyond the move to use more new equipment instead of used have been made to the layout or basic setup over the years. As with the front of the house, each store has a slightly different kitchen, but most feature an open layout that showcases the pit smoker. Each unit also features:
- Two cook-and-hold ovens that finish the proteins after smoking
- A "pit table" where meats are cut up and plated
- One six-burner stove and two fryers under the hood
- A 27-inch sandwich-style cooler next to the fry station to hold seafood and cold sides for fried items
- One standup freezer
- A sandwich station, where sandwiches are put together and sauces and condiments are added
- A front service line that includes a steam table and cold rail where all of the standard and special sides for the day are held.
"It's set up so that you go down the cold side first and plate those items while you're waiting on the protein. As the protein comes out it's added to the tray and then the hot sides go on and it goes up to the counter," Kennedy says. "It's super simple."
Kitchen staffing is simple, as well. A typical unit generating $1 million in sales per year employs three cooks in the morning, three at night and one who pulls a "swing shift" from the beginning of lunch through dinner. "We cook all of our food from scratch, so on the front end our labor cost is a bit high," Kennedy notes. "But once we get to 11 a.m. for lunch service, we basically have all of our food set for the three-hour period. Then it's just scoop, build, serve. It doesn't require skilled labor."
Growth through "Friendchising"
The concept's overall simplicity combined with its tight focus on keeping entry and operating costs low has the partners optimistic about its growth potential. With franchising now underway, the company has worked to develop a corporate infrastructure designed to facilitate bringing on new partners and to enable its founders to keep doing what they do best and enjoy most — maintaining a hands-on involvement.
Recently, Russell White joined as chief financial officer and IT director, and Laura Ryan came on as director of franchise relations. The company's custom-built corporate store in the Vail Valley serves as a training and orientation center for new and prospective franchisees. "We built a restaurant from the ground up, starting with an old gas station shell and took over some warehouse space behind the restaurant to use for offices and storage," Kennedy says. "Russell and Laura work directly with the franchise business and allow the three of us to spend more of our time in the restaurants working with the employees and the partners."
With its new corporate store and staff in place, and a handful of franchised units within a two-hour drive of headquarters, Moe's can provide potential franchisees a clear, big picture of its business model as well as its unique corporate culture. The latter is as important, if not more so, than the former, according to Kennedy. "Before we talk seriously to anyone they have to spend time here with us so they can see what our world is like and make sure that our worlds can work together," he says. "That's very important because we don't really look at this as a franchise, we use the word "friendchise". "It's a bunch of friends and partners and that's the way we want to keep it. We had to franchise because we had a half-dozen handshake deals going on and we needed to formalize those agreements and streamline our systems. But ultimately we want partners who are like us, who appreciate their employees, who are hard working, want to be a part of the local community and grow to multiple units. It helps if they enjoy sports, music, good food, and whiskey. That's the team that we've started to build and that we intend to grow with."