MOE’S GOES FROM ONE TO 56 LOCATIONS
Moe’s Original Bar B Que a smokin’ hot and meaty success story
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.”
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.
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.