Ted Stoner

Ted Stoner

Qdoba Mexican Grill takes a different approach to its business from its fellow Denver-based fast-casual burrito chain, Chipotle Mexican Grill [3].

Chipotle restaurants are all company-owned. Qdoba, whose management has been known to refer to its archrival as “the C-word,” franchises.

Chipotle’s product development is handled by its president, Steve Ells, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America [4]. Qdoba’s is handled by a team led by a Johnson & Wales graduate, Ted Stoner.

And perhaps most important, Chipotle’s menu rarely changes, while Qdoba’s continues to evolve. A slow-simmered shredded pork is being rolled out systemwide along with a new version of Stoner’s mole, which is now being called its Ancho Chile-Barbecue Sauce. A limited-time offering of a mango chicken salad is on the menu for the summer.

Qdoba continues to be one of the only chains to have offered customers mole, which in Mexico is a term for a wide variety of complex sauces. North of the border, however, it is best known as a rich, earthy affair usually finished with a bit of cinnamon-spiked chocolate.

Poblano pesto, a chunky Tex-Mex Ranchera Sauce—tomatoes, red onions, garlic, lemon juice and poblanos—and a variety of signature burritos set this chain apart from some of its competitors as one that’s willing to venture toward the edge of upcoming trends.

Stoner holds the title of director of strategic product development.

“I think they chose that title because they wanted to really make sure that we always kept a focus on where our resources were going,” Stoner says.

He participates in an annual “summit” with people from training, financial analysis and other departments to examine the competitive landscape and map out their strategy for the coming year.

It doesn’t always work.

The mole initially was too far ahead of the curve, but by adding some smoke flavor and adjusting the salt-and-sugar mix, the team has successfully repositioned it as a barbecue sauce. Now it’s being reintroduced successfully, Stoner says, with a marketing push slated for September.

Franchisees also have input, and one of their most successful product launches, the Mexican Gumbo, which is simply the chain’s tortilla soup poured over the fillings for a burrito, was devised by northern Colorado franchisee Steve Lauer.

“It rolled out last fall, and it’s doing incredibly well in sales as well as in terms of guest feedback,” Stoner says.

“We’re putting our toe in the LTO pool,” Stoner says of the new Chicken Mango Salad, which was tested last summer as a seasonal item. Introduced in a single store in Denver, the item later was offered in a few more stores and finally throughout the market, where it could be supported with commercials.

A combination of tests indicated to Qdoba management that the salad works best as summer-only limited-time offer.

That’s just as well, because mangoes’ seasonality makes it a challenge to offer the dish any time but the summer, and seasonality is one of the trends that Stoner sees throughout the country, along with use of local products.

“It’s something we’re definitely going to keep a watch on,” he says, although at the moment there’s not enough supply. “If there become opportunities in the future as there are more local growers providing larger quantities, it’s definitely something to look into.”

But the biggest trends he sees are greater awareness of health issues, a desire for authenticity—despite the fact that his diners weren’t ready for mole in most markets—and growing popularity of Latin-influenced foods.

Stoner says where trends are concerned Qdoba is positioned ahead of quick-service chains, “but not too close to the independents.” The diversity of markets that they operate in only allows them to push the envelope so much, he says.

8trends for ’08

HEALTH/SUPER FOODS

LATIN-INFLUENCED FOODS, PARTICULARLY MEXICAN BUT ALSO PERUVIAN

SIGNATURE BEVERAGES

VARIABLE PORTION SIZES

LOCAL, SEASONAL ITEMS AND HEIRLOOM INGREDIENTS

KIDS’ ITEMS

AUTHENTICITY

CUSTOMIZATION

FAD ABOUT TO FLOP?

MOJITOS “They came on quick, wound up everywhere—I think I even saw a pack of mojito-flavored gum the other day. They’re very refreshing, but there’s only so much you can do with them.”

With regard to health, Stoner sees Qdoba’s ability to customize any dish to be useful, so that customers can adjust portion sizes as they see fit.

“I’m trying to position our tacos to play into that somewhat too,” he says. “I think the oversized platters of food definitely aren’t the positive [factor] that they used to be.”

He sees Peruvian cuisine as one that is ripe for more popularity, led by ceviche, which already is recognized and accepted by many people, but Qdoba has no current plans to offer such items.

QDOBA MEXICAN GRILL

HEADQUARTERS: DenverUNITS: 373REGION: 40 statesPRICES: main courses, $5-$7; sides, $2.59-$3.99, except for chips and salsa, which are 79 cents-99 cents; cookies and brownies, 89 cents to $1.69LATEST MENU ROLLOUT: Seasoned Shredded Pork and Ancho Chile-Barbecue Sauce, $5-$7, first offered in AugustBEST SELLER: Chicken Queso Burrito, with three cheeses, rice, choice of beans and salsas, $6.19-$6.59, depending on the marketSLOWEST SELLER: Chicken Mole Burrito, which was rolled out in 1995 and is being removed from the market

From the health perspective he’s particularly intrigued by the popularity of “super foods” or ingredients perceived by the public as being particularly healthful. Avocados, happily, are one of those.

He sees kids’ items, especially more healthful ones, as an important factor on the horizon and says he would like to do more to promote their kids’ meals.

He sees exciting activity in the future in drinks.

“The signature-beverage thing I think is huge, and I’m just waiting for some big player to put horchata on the menu,” he says, referring to the sweetened nut infusions, often made with almonds, which are popular in Mexico. Micheladas, iced beer with lime juice, also seem like a natural, he says. Mojito may not fit in the same category, however.

John Bettin and Carron Harris [5]