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CMO Perspectives: Paul Macaluso of Moe’s Southwest Grill

CMO Perspectives: Paul Macaluso of Moe’s Southwest Grill

This interview is part of CMO Perspectives, presented by NRN in partnership with the National Restaurant Association’s Marketing Executives Group. The monthly feature explores how leading executives are navigating the ever-changing restaurant marketing landscape.

Since 2011, Moe’s Southwest Grill CMO Paul Macaluso has led the fast-casual operator’s marketing, creative services, catering, PR, supply chain and culinary departments. In this role, Macaluso oversees brand strategy and integrated marketing communications, including product development and marketing, creative strategy, content excellence, media, interactive, field marketing, PR, internal communications, catering, and strategic partnerships.

In 2013, Focus Brands awarded Macaluso with the Steve Romaniello Leadership Award, granted annually to an employee who demonstrates clear vision, drive and the relentless pursuit of growth. The same year, he was also named the Moe’s Southwest Grill Impact Player of the Year for his leadership and tremendous business results.
Macaluso discussed the Moe’s brand and what he sees in the future for the industry.

Can you provide a brief snapshot for anyone unfamiliar with your brand?

Founded in 2000 in Atlanta, Moe’s Southwest Grill is a fast-casual restaurant franchise featuring fresh, handmade, customizable Southwestern food in a welcoming environment that rocks. Moe’s is committed to serving only the highest quality ingredients 100 percent of the time at our more than 550 locations in the U.S and abroad. While Moe’s is best known for its burritos packed with a choice of more than 20 fresh, flavorful ingredients, the menu also features kids’, vegetarian and low-calorie options, all served with free chips and salsa.

How do you compete against a formidable competitor such as Chipotle?

I’m a strong believer that no matter who is your competition, you need to be clear on your advantaged playing field. At Moe’s, we dominate in what we refer to as our “irreverent welcome” and “feeding creativity.” Everything starts with our hearty “Welcome to Moe’s!” which encourages guests to feel at home and be themselves. Our “irreverent welcome” also encompasses our quirky brand voice, like our products named after cool things in pop culture (how about a Burrito Bowl called “Earmuffs”?) and the bright and energetic vibe in our restaurants.

“Feeding creativity” is our ability to provide substantially more options for people to personalize their meal. We have nearly twice as many product platforms (including quesadillas, nachos and Stacks) than our largest competitor and over 20 fresh, high-quality ingredients for them to customize their masterpieces.  

You have a strong social media effort with Vine, YouTube, Instagram, etc. What have you learned that you can share?  

Our brand has a rich heritage in pop culture and music, which naturally lends itself to genuine and interesting ways to engage with our guests. Beyond that, one of our key learnings from the last few years is that we must tailor our efforts on each social media platform. What works well on Twitter is something different than what works well for us on Instagram. Our team is extremely focused on cultivating genuine consumer engagement, leveraging the power of authentic brand stories that spread through owned, earned, shared and paid media connections to create shared value. I would also add that our internal structure has helped with our growth and relevance in this area. We have an in-house creative team that works right alongside the brand and social media teams. This collaborative culture has yielded fun, impactful and real-time social media outputs.  
Moe’s has vegetarian and gluten-free options. How does that fit in with the brand positioning?  

This is definitely an important and growing part of our business. We have USDA-certified organic tofu and clearly identifiable vegetarian options across the entire menu. Again, our 20-plus fresh ingredients give people tons of high quality choices. Moe’s has a “food mission,” which is our commitment to serving the highest-quality ingredients every day, everywhere. We also embrace the fact that our guests each have their own “food mission,” whether that’s high-protein, flexitarian, Paleo, etc. Our guests love to personalize their meals, but the inspiration starts with having plenty of premium ingredients to choose from. 

Catering program benefits

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What role does catering play in your business? How are you maximizing that?  

Catering is the fastest-growing part of our business. Our guests want Moe’s for everything from home parties to business meetings, so we have set up the system to bring our awesome food to them wherever they are. The entrepreneurial spirit of our amazing franchise partners has really spearheaded our initial entry into this area, and we’re now adding national marketing support to take it to the next level. The consumer benefit of our catering program is not only that we have awesome food, but also that we do all the delivery, set up and provide all the necessary supplies. We make the person that places the order the hero of the day. The franchise partner benefit is that our catering business is a highly profitable and totally incremental part to their in-restaurant business. Our goal is to grow our catering business to 20 percent of our sales in the next few years.

Moe’s is part of Roark Capital Group, which owns several other restaurant brands. How does that relationship work?

My experience working with the leadership at Roark over the last three years has been absolutely fantastic. They understand the franchise model and are committed to balanced, healthy and long-term growth and brand building. Of the nearly 30 brands that Roark owns, six of them, including Moe’s, are part of Focus Brands. The other five brands are Carvel, Cinnabon, Schlotzsky’s, Auntie Anne’s and McAlister’s Deli. These six brands are overseen by one CEO, Steve DeSutter, who has just recently come on board. We currently have some shared services, such as HR, accounting, IT and legal. Steve’s vision is to organize and operate our business in a way that makes Focus Brands more valuable as a whole enterprise than the sum of the value of each individual brand alone. To that end, I collaborate with the other CMOs regularly on a variety of initiatives, from key learnings on social media to best practices on grand openings, to sharing great vendor partners. I foresee this level of collaboration and the amount of shared services growing in the near term, which will make all of our brands even better. 

What is something that the industry does not know about Moe’s?    

For one, our food mission, which is our commitment to serving the highest-quality ingredients, is in place in 100 percent of our restaurants 100 percent of the time, or we don’t market it. In other words, we don’t try to take credit for the things that we are still working on or maybe only partially rolled out to our system because we think it could be confusing to our guests and is less than transparent. We are focused on communicating craftsmanship, authenticity and customization in an unpretentious way that is helpful and accessible to our guests.

Secondly, we have a rich heritage in music and we will be developing that more fully in the near future. Our name Moe’s, actually stands for Musicians, Outlaws and Entertainers, and our in-restaurant music playlist consists of the “dearly departed.” That means in order for a song to make it onto our music playlist, someone from the band or associated with that specific song must have passed away — everyone from Frank Sinatra, Jerry Garcia and Jimmy Hendrix to Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse. It is our way of celebrating the originality of the awesome pioneers of music.  

Traffic building strategies

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What has been the best way you have increased traffic for Moe’s?  

Fortunately, with our high-quality ingredients, awesome service experience, and free chips and salsa, we don’t have to rely on discounting to increase traffic. Our biggest successes, both in terms of driving traffic and profitable sales, have been by creating “shareable experiences.” These are events like our Free Queso Day and Cinco de Moe’s, where we do massive free sampling of our products that are highly differentiated and are known to have high consumer satisfaction. These are shareable experiences both in terms of us sharing great products with our guests and our guests creating memorable moments with their families and friends at our restaurants. The enduring effects of these events have been phenomenal. This year’s Free Queso Day on Sept. 18 will be the sixth consecutive year for the brand.  

Moe’s has inked 120 franchise deals in the first half of 2014. How are you preparing for that growth?  

It’s been an incredible first half of the year. Between new restaurant openings and new franchise deals, we’re on pace to get to 1,000 restaurants within the next four years. We have definitely added resources across the organization to ensure we are ready for it.  We’ve added everything from extra franchise sales, real estate and construction, field ops and marketing talent to help our franchise partners successfully open and operate these restaurants.

Specifically to marketing, I will continue to add a new field marketing manager for every 100-125 restaurants we open, and have one specific to our new and emerging markets. I’ve also added a grand opening manager, which helps our franchisee partners in the development and execution their grand opening marketing plans.   
What is your favorite quote?  

“The most important persuasion tool you have in your entire arsenal is integrity.” – Zig Ziglar

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