Moe’s Orig­i­nal Bar B Que a smokin’ hot and meaty suc­cess story

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Ja­son Blevins

Fif­teen years ago, Jeff Kennedy joined his former Univer­sity of Alabama bud­dies Mike Fer­nan­dez and Ben Gil­bert to con­vert a 40foot hay trailer into a kitchen — the “Pig Rig” — and started smok­ing brisket, pork butt, ribs and yard birds. »

J eff Kennedy is sweat­ing over a smoky bar­be­cue pit laden with quar­tered chick­ens and racks of ribs. Even though he’s a co-founder of Moe’s Orig­i­nal Bar B Que, a fran­chise-ori­ented busi­ness with 55 res­tau­rants in 16 states, he’s of­ten found la­bor­ing in the haze of smol­der­ing hard­wood. He’s not one to boss and or­der peo­ple around.

“I’m a worker,” says the 44-year-old with an abid­ing Alabama drawl, wip­ing his hands on a rag dan­gling from his apron. “I’ve found point­ing and hol­ler­ing doesn’t get you too far.”

Fif­teen years ago, Kennedy joined his former Univer­sity of Alabama bud­dies Mike Fer­nan­dez and Ben Gil­bert in hatch­ing a plan they hoped would keep them locked in their post-grad­u­ate work of ski­ing and pad­dling around Vail and the Ea­gle Val­ley. They con­verted a 40foot hay trailer into a kitchen — the “Pig Rig” — and started smok­ing brisket, pork butt, ribs and yard birds over a 50gal­lon bar­rel packed with ap­ple­wood on the side of U.S. 6 in Ed­wards. They sold out of ev­ery­thing for 100 days in a row that sum­mer of 2002.

Soon they will open their 56th Moe’s Orig­i­nal Bar B Que, their first in­ter­na­tional shop in Mex­ico City, mak­ing them one of the Ea­gle Val­ley’s top busi­ness suc­cess sto­ries. In a high-coun­try re­gion dom­i­nated by the bil­lion-dol­lar Vail Re­sorts con­glom­er­ate, the trio of Alabama raised friends has grown one of the state’s most suc­cess­ful home­grown food fran­chises, open­ing any­where from six to 10 stores a year. With more than $50 mil­lion in an­nual rev­enue and 1,000 em­ploy­ees, the Moe’s Orig­i­nal fran­chise is pac­ing to have 100 stores by 2020. And yes, the ven­er­a­ble Pig Rig still rolls into ac­tion as a back-up kitchen and mo­bile cater­ing op­er­a­tion.

Un­like ma­jor fran­chise own­ers who work be­hind desks, Fer­nan­dez, Kennedy and Gil­bert reign from be­hind the pit. At their Ea­gle shop and the slope­side store they opened in Vail’s Lion­shead Vil­lage in 2002, the trio has trained dozens of part­ners — most of them from south­ern col­leges like them­selves — who have gone on to open their own Moe’s Orig­i­nal lo­ca­tions. In many ways, the Ea­gle and Vail shops are Moe’s uni­ver­si­ties, of­fer­ing a steady stream of Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia 20-some­things a chance to start their own busi­nesses.

A lot of their work­ers and even­tual part­ners come from the south — har­vested from SEC schools and the ever-trav­el­ing tribe that chases Georgia’s own Wide­spread Panic.

“We’ve net­worked a lot through Panic,” says Fer­nan­dez, laugh­ing at how they tend to al­ways run out of bar­be­cue around noon when the band has a nearby show that night.

“The kids” — that’s what the Moe’s founders call their work­ers and part­ners — just keep feed­ing the Moe’s ma­chine.

“They move out here and we give them a job and they live with friends and ski,” says Kennedy, a fa­ther of two who lives a few blocks from the Ea­gle shop.

Ties to South

Usu­ally, one in three sticks around longer than a sea­son and keeps work­ing at Moe’s with a plan to open their own store. And those work­ers lure more friends from the South.

“It just keeps re­fill­ing it­self,” says Fer­nan­dez, who worked his way through col­lege learn­ing the in­tri­ca­cies of smoked meat from Tuscaloosa, Ala., bar­be­cue leg­end Moses Day.

Fer­nan­dez went through a John­son & Wales culi­nary pro­gram of­fered through Vail Re­sorts for cooks work­ing in the com­pany’s on-moun­tain res­tau­rants. He’s the pit boss, teach­ing work­ers and po­ten­tial part­ners about food han­dling and prep. Kennedy and Gil­bert, who were work­ing in Vail-area res­tau­rants when they birthed the Moe’s plan, han­dle the busi­ness side. Moe’s fran­chise own­ers range in age from 24 to 50. Most have more than one store. They need about $150,000 to $200,000 in ini­tial in­vest­ment to get rolling after at least a six­month tour through the Ea­gle or Vail shops. Each store av­er­ages about $1.2 mil­lion in an­nual rev­enue. The three founders don’t choose new lo­ca­tions. They let their part­ners pick their own ter­ri­tory, contributing to an or­ganic growth pat­tern that has seeded 18 Moe’s joints in Alabama, seven in North Carolina and 11 in Colorado. Only four Moe’s stores are owned by the com­pany.

Of­fer­ing an ex­am­ple

Fer­nan­dez, 52, says own­ers work­ing side-by-side with their em­ploy­ees re­veal the work ethic needed to build a suc­cess­ful Moe’s lo­ca­tion. There are about seven Moe’s lead­ers who ro­tate through ev­ery store open­ing, head­ing down to new lo­ca­tions in the Caroli­nas, Alabama and Georgia, and spend­ing weeks help­ing each part­ner get on their feet. The three founders build up kitchens, wash dishes, clean bath­rooms and gen­er­ally work like any $12-an-hour em­ployee.

“It’s a trickle-down ef­fect,” Fer­nan­dez says of the process. “We want to give these kids a chance to make some money. It’s quite hum­bling when some­one tells us they want to make money for us and they put in all this ef­fort to give us a bit of money. It makes you care about them and it makes you want to work for them.”

“We show them we are all in this to­gether,” Kennedy says. “We are not just sit­ting in an of­fice bark­ing out or­ders. We know how to do this and we are help­ing them get rolling. We try to lead by ex­am­ple.”

The Moe’s model fire roasts meats ev­ery day, a twist on the ven­er­a­ble bar­be­cue joint tra­di­tion of roast­ing the week’s se­lec­tions in a sin­gle, smoky ses­sion. They also pre­pare a ro­tat­ing se­lec­tion of sides ev­ery day: soul food (such as col­lared greens), cole slaw, fried okra, corn­bread, beans, black-eyed peas, sweet potato fries, mud pies and a dan­ger­ously delicious ba­nana pud­ding. Ev­ery Moe’s has a play area for chil­dren, and a kid’s meal is $1 with an adult meal. At the Moe’s Ea­gle shop, there’s rarely not a line and some lo­cal fam­i­lies eat there a few times a week. Most of the Moe’s lo­ca­tions of­fer live mu­sic. The shop in En­gle­wood, for ex­am­ple, has a sprawl­ing stage with bands play­ing sev­eral times a week.

“You can kinda do what­ever you want to do with your own Moe’s. We are not try­ing to run their busi­ness. We are try­ing to give them the tools to run their own busi­ness and lean on us when they need to,” Fer­nan­dez says.

A loyal cus­tomer

Ken Ho­eve, a pro­fes­sional ath­lete from Gyp­sum and fa­ther of two boys, might be the Ea­gle Moe’s most loyal cus­tomer. He eats there at least three times a week. A native of the South­east, Ho­eve calls Moe’s his fa­vorite bar­be­cue.

“But it goes be­yond the food. It’s the gen­uine friend­li­ness of the staff, the home­town South­ern at­ti­tude and the way ev­ery­one there treats you like fam­ily,” Ho­eve said. “Just talk­ing about the place makes me hun­gry. You know that age-old ques­tion ‘If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life what would it be?’ I’d choose Moe’s.”

While Moe’s is one of the Ea­gle Val­ley’s most pop­u­lar eater­ies, the global pro­file af­forded by the an­chor stores in Vail and Ea­gle — a few min­utes from the air­port that fun­nels vis­i­tors into the re­sorts of Vail and Beaver Creek — has helped feed Moe’s spec­tac­u­lar growth, Kennedy says.

“We have the en­tire world walk­ing by our front door ev­ery day of the year,” he says. “Ev­ery store we go open there are al­ways mul­ti­ple ties to Vail. No mat­ter where we are, peo­ple tell us they have been to the store in Lion­shead or to the store in Ea­gle.”

Pho­tos by Gabriel Scar­lett, The Den­ver Post

Jeff Kennedy, one of the three founders and own­ers of Moe’s Orig­i­nal Bar B Que, pre­pares chicken and ribs on a wood­burn­ing smoker out­side their flag­ship restau­rant in Ea­gle last month.

The flag­ship store of Moe’s Orig­i­nal Bar B Que, which opened in 2002, still stands in Ea­gle.

Gabriel Scar­lett, The Den­ver Post

Mike Fer­nan­dez, left, and Jeff Kennedy, two of the three founders of Moe’s Orig­i­nal Bar B Que, talk out­side their flag­ship restau­rant in Ea­gle.

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