In the case of Moe’s Original Bar B Que, you get a successful fast-casual chain of stores with more than 50 locations and $50 million in annual sales. The business began when Univ. of Alabama classmates and friends Mike Fernandez, Ben Gilbert and Jeff Kennedy – who were also barbecue aficionados – learned the tricks of the fire roasted trade from Tuscaloosa barbecue legend Moses Day. Afterhoning their skills in various restaurants and, in Fernandez’s case, going to culinary school, they decided to create their own barbecue restaurant in 2001, using what Day had taught them. That’s when they crafted their fire pit using a diesel barrel welded to a trailer.
More than 16 years later and after doing well even through the Great Recession that began in 2008, the founders have built a strong barbecue business on a mantra of good food at a decent price. Moe’s restaurants have performed well in bellwether barbecue states like Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina in addition to states where barbecue isn’t so ingrained, like Maine, California and Wyoming.
Fernandez credits Moe’s success with a system that he, Gilbert and Kennedy created that allows for manageable growth and a flexible operation that works well for each store. “My partners in Colorado do well with brisket, and I have stores up in Maine that do well with blackened salmon,” says Fernandez, adding, “It means that the owners, like the one in Maine, have to learn about their customers and talk to them, to see what works.”
There is also a bit of education and exposure that goes along with sharing traditional regional tastes in a broader way. “When we first started in Colorado, it took forever for people to eat collard greens. You have to teach people about new things and tell them that if they don’t like something, they can try something else,” Fernandez points out.
As for the center-stage, center-of-the-plate proteins across Moe’s Bar B Que joints, Fernandez says that pork remains a top seller with items like “Bama style” pulled pork and ribs. “We hang our hat on the pork,” he declares.
To maintain appeal and to build on its customer base, Moe’s sources its pork from commodity providers that work with their budget but who provide a high-quality product that can be brined, smoked and cooked to their respective recipes. “We try to find the balance between great food at great prices, by putting our spin on it. I’m not selling a $10 sandwich – we try to sell a sandwich for $5,” he explains, adding that authenticity is important to the founding crew. “We don’t buy anything that’s processed or packaged – we cook with whole foods.”
The staff at Moe’s restaurants smokes their pork the Alabama way, which isn’t as much low and slow as other regional barbecue methods. “With Alabama barbecue, you cook on an open pit of hardwood. We’re roasting meat, so it’s a little hotter. And we cook it fresh and serve it fresh,” he says.
While pork is a specialty and sells briskly, Moe’s has also found a winner in its Fried Shrimp Moe Boy sandwich. The restaurant’s chicken wings have found a following across the country, as have the dozens of Southern-style sides, including daily standards like baked beans and slaw and rotating sides, all made from scratch.
Given that it’s a concept that allows for versatility and customization, Moe’s operators also get creative when sourcing products in their market. “One of our partners in Ohio buys fresh poultry from local farmers,” Fernandez says. At this point, because of the higher cost of heritage-type farm-produced fresh meat, Fernandez says that such procurement is more challenging than working with processors who can provide competitively-priced quality proteins.
Like the meats that take some time to brine and cook and taste just right, the company has also balanced patience and encouragement among its employees. “We care a lot about our foods and about teaching people how to cook,” Fernandez notes. “It’s fun – and it should be fun.”
The sense of fun and taste for authentic Alabama barbecue hasn’t gone unnoted. Moe’s Original Bar B Que was named one of the Top 10 BBQ Chains in America by USA Today and the Daily Meal and was listed as one of the Top 10 Rib Joints in the country by Relish.
Like its cooking method, the company keeps getting hotter. This past month, Moe’s opened a new eatery in Newark, Ohio, followed by the launch later this summer of a location in Montgomery, Alabama.