As the corporate guy in charge of marketing, field operations and off-premises at Moe’s Southwest Grill, Tad Low’s job includes threading the needle between customer expectations, franchisee pain points and a fast-changing delivery environment that shines a spotlight on how different foods weather the car trip to at-home diners. That can be especially tough for tacos, which don’t travel especially well, but are obviously one of the pillars for a Mexican fast-casual brand.
Moe’s is a part of Atlanta-based Focus Brands, the franchisor of Cinnabon, McAlister’s Deli, Schlotzsky’s, Carvel and Jamba Juice, so while Low has a big task on his plate, he can at least rely on counterparts doing the same work for other brands in the corporate family. With a background in media and marketing, Low’s work in off-premises has been a big career change, but something he’s enjoyed dissecting, even if the work tends to be challenging.
Now with nearly two years under his belt, Low’s biggest priorities are expanding his team and bringing franchisees into the decision-making process, integrating third-party vendors into the system, making space for a second production line and, perhaps most challenging, deciding what to do about tacos and its very popular Stacks products that are best eaten on the spot inside the restaurant, rather than a half hour later at somebody’s house. Oh yeah, and taking care to avoid upsetting the catering apple cart, a successful $80 million-to-$90 million pre-existing program that’s boosted the brand’s average unit volumes for years before third-party delivery was such a big thing.
“From day one, I picked up the phone and called our contacts at Uber Eats, DoorDash and Grubhub and said I gotta figure out what it is that we’re doing, who’s live and what’s happening,” Low said of his early days in his new role. “We had very little reporting and, even though it was two years ago, it feels like a decade ago.”
Getting the lay of the land, and assembling the data needed to make big decisions, hasn’t been easy, but building a dedicated corporate team to assist in the effort has been a major boost.
“I’m now able to leverage our team of field marketing managers to help further educate franchisees on the importance of off-premises, and then bring in our team to make those things happen out in the field, so that’s been really cool to see,” he added.
Underscoring the importance of delivery and catering, Low said that some of the 725 Moe’s locations have seen off-premises sales shoot up to 30 percent of overall volume. The company’s restaurants, all franchised aside from four company stores, use the “big four” delivery providers, but give franchisees the flexibility to choose what works best in their territories, including whether to work with smaller, local or regional delivery providers.
Integrating those third-party vendors, and getting up and running with Olo’s Dispatch platform to encourage franchisees to order delivery directly through Moes.com has been a major focus for the fledgling, growing headquarters team.
Deciding how to tailor delivery menus to customer and franchisee expectations has been difficult, and Low stressed that the company is still experimenting and investigating a variety of approaches. At present, tacos and Stacks are not available for customers ordering through third-party channels, but they are still offered for orders coming into the company’s own website at 100 locations, even though those orders are still fulfilled by third-party drivers.
Asked about that contradiction, which doesn’t avoid the problems of packaging performance for those items, Low said part of the logic is a feeling that customers who go directly to Moes.com are likely the brand’s most loyal customers who tend to know what they want.
“I think it’s more important to capture those guests and own that guest experience, and work on the quality of the food that goes out there, than it is for us not to have that and not serve it” to any delivery customers, he said.
Handling customer complaints has been another piece of unfinished business, especially with the number of ways guests now have to air occasional grievances—from calling the store, calling the delivery provider, going through the corporate guest services department or social channels.
The company has also worked with DoorDash to come up with established protocols for responding to delivery complaints and issues, with a goal of being more nuanced in a given situation, rather than just comping the entire meal as a knee-jerk response that hurts store-level profitability “on a third-party channel, which is already our lowest profit margin.
Understanding those differentiated profit margins and guest order channels has been another challenge, which Low said is part of his wider mission to bring franchisees into the decision-making process, rather than the recipient of top-down orders from the mothership.
“We gotta make that channel profitable,” he added about third-party delivery. “We know it has to exist, we can’t refuse to play, but we’ve got to make sure we’re focused on areas that continue to drive profitability.”