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Hearty welcome

Moe’s Southwest Grill plans big expansion in Bay State

By Gail Waterhouse
Globe Correspondent / February 11, 2012
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“Welcome to Moe’s!’’ employees bellow as each customer enters any of the Mexican chain’s locations.

Not many restaurants have workers heartily greet their customers, but at Moe’s Southwest Grill, the warm welcome is a part of the experience, so much so that the company gets complaints when employees forget.

Moe’s president Paul Damico hopes this type of hospitality will help the restaurant catch on in Massachusetts, where the chain plans to open more than 30 new restaurants over the next three to four years. The “fast casual’’ Tex-Mex restaurant - a step above fast food in price and quality - already has six locations in the Bay State and will open its seventh in Waltham this month. If Moe’s sticks to its expansion plan, it would be on pace to become a major player among Mexican food chains in the state.

“We’re a brand that does really well around college and universities, strong incomes and healthy economies, and Boston and Massachusetts has all of that,’’ said Damico.

Moe’s has 444 locations in 32 states, as well as locations in Russia and Turkey. The majority of its restaurants are in Southern states, such as Georgia, where the privately held chain was founded in 2000.

Steven Hixson, the owner of the Waltham franchise, said he is opening in the area because he thought being near Brandeis and Bentley universities would help his business. Hixson, 58, bought two Moe’s franchises two years ago after a long career in the technology industry. “I was trying to figure out what I could do to put my own destiny in my own hands,’’ he said. “Starting off I bought two franchises, but I fully intend to do at least three, hopefully five and maybe more.’’

With so few Moe’s currently in the area, however, and a variety of other choices for Tex-Mex or Mexican cuisine, Hixson said he hopes that word of mouth from loyal customers will help give the restaurant name recognition.

At the Natick location, which opened last March, a number of repeat customers were dining during a recent lunch rush.

The menu at Moe’s is more expansive than at some competitors, offering fajitas and taco salads along with more standard fare like burritos, quesadillas, and tacos. Individual menu items cost about $5.50 to $8.50, and meals that include a side dish and drink cost about $10.

Joe Hartigan of Wakefield and Marvin Gibson of Norwood were taking their lunch break at Moe’s, a place they frequent approximately two to three times a week.

“We come here because it’s healthier than other places,’’ Gibson said. “That’s what we’re looking for.’’

Hartigan said he likes the amenities Moe’s offers such as a self-serve salsa bar. “It’s all fresh,’’ he said. “The chips and salsa come free with everything.’’

The first Moe’s in Massachusetts opened in Shrewsbury in 2004, but expansion has been slow. Dennis Lombardi, a consultant at WD Partners, a restaurant design development consulting firm, said it could take several years for Moe’s to establish a presence in Massachusetts.

“A lot of this is going to be predicated on the financial strength of the franchisee and their plans on how rapidly to expand the market,’’ he said. “Chipotle has the incredible advantage of being corporate owned and building five stores all at once and creating critical mass all at once.’’

Chipotle Mexican Grill, the restaurant that Lombardi called “the 900-pound gorilla in the market’’ of Mexican fast-casual, currently has 1,230 stores in the country, including 29 in Massachusetts, and made approximately $1.83 billion in US sales in 2010. Qdoba Mexican Grill, the next biggest competitor with a presence in Massachusetts, has 600 locations nationwide and generated $457 million in 2010 sales, compared with $377 million in sales at Moe’s, according to food industry research firm Technomic Inc.

Moe’s also faces home-grown competition. John Pepper, chief executive and cofounder of Boloco, a Boston-based burrito chain, said Moe’s strategy of opening more than 30 locations in the next few years is “an aggressive growth plan,’’ especially if the restaurant is looking for multiple sites in Boston proper.

“Real estate is super tight in Boston,’’ he said. “There’s not a lot of new development, if any. You’re taking over a lot of existing real estate, especially as you get closer to downtown.’’

Hixson said he is optimistic that with more time, he can find a place in Boston to expand once the Waltham location gets off the ground, and that the college population will be receptive to the new addition.

“Not that many people know about us yet, but we think it will change quickly once we open,’’ he said. “We expect to do very well here.’’

Gail Waterhouse can be reached at gail.waterhouse@globe.com.

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