Foodservice Equipment Reports

UNIT DESIGN: Moe’s Big Makeover

When a new Moe’s Southwest Grill prototype debuted  last year in an Albany, N.Y., shopping center, the stacked-stone exterior, bright red canopy and funky signage—not to mention the menu—drew customers in droves. Volume for the week reached an impressive $53,000, more than double the system’s average of about $19,000.

That successful opening was a sign of things to come for the new design, and today the location serves as a destination point for the shopping center. What’s working? Just about everything. The revamped Moe’s stores are cleaner, neater, brighter, with easier-to-maintain equipment and more sustainable operations overall. And, with the help of improved franchisee and real estate site selection, they’re generating brighter sales figures, too—about 16% higher average unit volume compared to existing stores.

The new prototype was a while in coming. In 2007, then 350-unit  Moe’s was acquired by Focus Brands. Focus at that time hired Paul Damico, formerly of HMS Host and SSP America, as president.

One of his first goals was to overhaul the brand, and that involved a new prototype. Moe’s rapid expansion in the early ’00s meant that stores were put up quickly, without a lot of attention to equipment or uniformity. The designs weren’t presenting a consistent enough brand image, and they weren’t wearing all that well. “The older restaurants were looking dated in terms of colors, layout and furnishings,” Damico says.

The first proto appeared last year, the company’s 10th anniversary, in Virginia. Today, about 30 of the new design are up and running, and another 20 existing stores have been retrofitted to match.

Prototype Goals

The fresh-Mex concept has always been heavy on the fresh, with fresh-made chips and salsa and a couple dozen ingredients to customize burritos, tacos, quesadillas, nachos, salads and fajitas. All of which is done with a pretty simple kitchen lineup sans microwave or even a freezer.

“Our kitchen layout was pretty efficient in terms of labor,” Damico says. “Employees would do all the prep work in the back-of-house area in the morning before the store opens, and then they would move to the front to hold down the five key positions: steam, hot ingredients, cold ingredients, swing and cashier.”

So what Damico and Moe’s Design Managerr Lauren Taliaferro focused on was streamlining and decluttering back- and front-of-house, and ironing out food production inefficiencies in order to improve service speeds. They also added sustainable (read: cost-saving) elements where possible.

Equipment: Decluttered, Upgraded

First on the hit-list were the steam-powered tortilla presses, the first thing guests see as they move down the line. In addition to requiring water lines and drains (and the accompanying maintenance headaches), the units also steamed up the sneeze guards and the surrounding area, and tended to run out of steam during peak service times.

“You’d have to push the steam button two or three times and wait maybe 15 long seconds for [the press] to heat the tortilla,” Damico says.

The solution was a pair of electric tortilla presses that heat the product in less than half the time, no plumbing or drainage required. During non-peak times, one press can be turned off to save on electric costs. The units were tested in company-owned Moe’s in ’09 and rolled out to all new stores in ’10 as part of the equipment package. About half of the existing franchise-store operators—some 200 in all—also opted to upgrade their tortilla stations.

Next up for review was the front-of-house cookline, which in the existing stores consisted of a flat-top grill, four-burner range, clamshell griddle, rice cooker and bean kettle in full view of guests.

The various pieces of equipment each stood on individual stands, and therefore at varying heights. “It always looked like a train wreck,” Damico says, laughing.

To visually declutter the space, planners placed the grill, range and clamshell griddle atop a 74”-long stainless steel work surface with the bean kettle at the end. The bean kettle was downsized from a 30-gal. unit to a 12-gal. countertop model, which meant designers could also eliminate the costs of a trench drain in front of the unit. And the rice cooker was moved out of sight to the prep area. Instead of the old gas-powered version, the team chose an electric rice cooker that could be moved to the back-of-house prep area, out of customers’ view. 

“The prototype’s cookline is more attractive and easier for the staff to work on,” Damico says. The streamlining also led to a 3’ reduction in hood length, to 12’, saving on installation and equipment costs while reducing overall energy use.

The final tweak was a subtle one: increasing the depth of the work surfaces and cutting boards.

“The old cutting boards were 10” front to back, but our tortillas were 12” in diameter, Damico says. “There was a disconnect in how the product moved down the line.” In new stores, the cutting boards have been upsized to an ample 16” deep. The greater depth helps increase the speed with which products are moved down the line, Damico adds.

On the decluttering front, changes included adding an attractive “wall” behind the chip warmer to shield its unattractive backside from guests’ view. Updated sneezeguards boast sturdier glass and posts, allowing Moe’s to get rid of the “don’t lean on glass” signs. And the former “catch-all” work area behind the cash registers was converted to a tidy to-go area with a hand sink (fitted with stainless steel “skirt” to hide pipes) in the corner.

Dining, Service Areas

Changes in Moe’s front-of-house design combine both practicality and sustainability. Some of the highlights include an eye-catching new Salsa Bar as well as new signage and materials choices. The updated trash cans are cool, too.

The Salsa Bar makeover puts Moe’s spicy condiments front-and-center. Instead of a humble corner area, the prototype turns salsa into a destination. Overhead, a bright green soffit with “Salsa” in foot-high letters can be seen from almost anywhere in the restaurant. The wall behind the counter is a deep red, solid wall covering. This low-VOC material is made of durable 13% post-industrial recycled content.

The chilled drop-in pans display a single (rather than double) row of labeled salsa containers plus one for lemon and lime wedges. The new configuration looks neater and also helps reduce chances of cross-contamination caused by reaching over to the back row.

Recessed can lighting uses either energy-efficient LEDs or CFLs. Soffit graphics are washed by light from a 24” fluorescent track fixture.

Furnishing upgrades follow the “easy maintenance/easy-on-the-earth mantra,” says Store Development V.P. Steve Parker. Chair and booth seating uses a durable Crypton fabric that is stain-, water- and bacteria-resistant. Booths sit on raised legs that allow easy access for brooms and mops. 

Flooring options include tile or a commercial-grade durable vinyl made in Alabama. The walls now feature a sturdy wainscoting material made of 13% post-industrial recycled content that rises to 42” in height. The higher wainscoting protects from damage by chair backs and cuts down on maintenance costs. Wall base and chair rails made of PVC eliminate the need for touch-up paint.

The trash cans feature an inward-sloping all-Corian top with a smartly sized circular opening that’s just wide enough to accept disposable rice bowls but too narrow for baskets. The black Corian tops hold up well against moisture and are easy to keep clean. The cabinet is floorless so that cans can be rolled in and out—i.e. no messy swapping out of trash bags in front of customers.

Cost Of Green 

Sustainability, because it ultimately makes financial sense, also figures high on the list for everything from building design and equipment to furnishings, fixtures and food choices.

The costs for the prototype turned out to be about $40,000 higher than for the previous store model, but the payback appears to fall into place.

“We expect that based on our growth projections, we will be able to almost eliminate the higher costs thanks to economies of scale,” Parker notes. “And it’s worth noting that the prototype will have lower maintenance costs (thanks to more durable finishes) and lower utility costs (thanks to improved lighting and the smaller hood system).”

Moe’s is looking closely at the operating numbers from its one LEED-certified restaurant, opened in ’09 in Williston, Vt.

In addition to the Williston store’s environmentally friendly choices of equipment, furnishings and fixtures, one unusual element is worth noting—its walk-in cooling system. In winter, “which lasts about nine months of the year,” Parker jokes, a special controller system made by a Freeaire overrides the condensers and evaporators when outside air temperatures are equal or cooler than the desired walk-in settings. An intake fan pulls in enough outside air for cooling.

Meanwhile, the Moe’s flagship restaurant, located around the corner from company headquarters in Atlanta, is pursuing Green Restaurant Association certification. Changes at this store include upgrading the lighting package, adding a temperature-activated alarm on the walk-in to reduce loss of cold air caused by doors left open too long, and a computer-controlled thermostat that adjusts interior temperatures for overnight savings.

The three changes cost about $12,400 to install, “but with the estimated annual savings of about $5,100, we expect about a two-year return on investment,” says Moe’s Corporate Communications Manager Lauren Barash. As with the Williston store, the company is in the process of analyzing the data and evaluating its next step.

Looking Ahead

This year’s development plans call for the opening of more than 60 prototype Moe’s stores, and if early indications are on target, the future will be bright for Moe’s and its new design. The company projects 480 stores in 32 states by December.


MENU/SEGMENT: Mexican/southwest

UNIT VOLUME: $ 950,000 per year

PROTOTYPE SIZE: 2,600 sq. ft./92 seats


FF&E PACKAGE: $131,000

UNITS: 430

PLANS: 60-65 openings in 2011


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