Client Spotlight: Smiling Moose Rocky Mountain Deli

Our own Dustin Minton sat down with client Sue Daggett, CEO of Smiling Moose Rocky Mountain Deli, to delve into her concept, its recent rebranding and ongoing growth strategy. 

1. Tell us a bit about the history of Smiling Moose Rocky Mountain Deli—how did it start, and how has it evolved over the years?

Inspired by the adventuresome spirit of the Rocky Mountains, a group of close, mountain-loving friends opened the first Smiling Moose in 2003 in Edwards, Colo., to meet the demand for a fresh, bold and hearty meal in a welcoming environment. The name Smiling Moose Rocky Mountain Deli draws on the adventurousness of the Rocky Mountains and the friendly, gregarious nature of the employees who foster a culture of camaraderie between one another and guests. 

Since the first deli opened, Smiling Moose has roamed beyond its borders to bring its exciting, robust menu and warm, mountain town experience to 18 locations across seven states including Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Smiling Moose has now evolved into a place where guests can create made-to-order and unique, chef-created hot and hearty or cool sandwiches, chopped and tossed salads, savory soups, wraps, breakfast sandwiches and skillets with fresh ingredients and bold flavors.
In 2015, we embarked on a brand overhaul that included both a major menu update and complete restaurant redesign, as well as infrastructure and technology improvements. Working with four different chefs, Smiling Moose created or re-imagined 20 menu items—over half of our total menu. 
In 2016, the Denver and Edwards, Colorado restaurants will be remodeled to the new restaurant aesthetic that reinforces the deli’s Rocky Mountain roots. All new Smiling Moose restaurants will have this design and existing restaurants will incorporate retrofits over the course of the next three years. Three levels of the remodel are being created to fit the revenue levels and investment requirements for a variety of franchisees. 

2. You've mentioned that Smiling Moose underwent a rebrand last year. What did you hope to achieve with the rebrand, and what factors did you need to consider as you planned this initiative?

Prior to this rebrand, Smiling Moose made trade dress updates as we grew from the first location in 2003 to the 18 delis we have open today, but there were no company-wide design or menu updates during this time. 

To gain a better understanding of who our guests are and what draws them to the brand, Smiling Moose conducted an extensive research project that highlighted the need for a new and more uniform restaurant design. The research showed that guests love the multi- sensory experience at Smiling Moose, from the smell of fresh-baked bread and sizzling meats on the grill, to watching salads being tossed in front of them and hearing the exuberant "Mo!" calls from the staff.

We also found that our guests tend to be rugged and outdoorsy, active, social, health-conscious doers who like customization and don’t love the idea of a chain. 

To meet these guest preferences, Smiling Moose launched a brand update ranging from an interior redesign, infrastructure improvements and a re-imagined menu, to a refined logo and new website focusing on these core attributes. 

3. Smiling Moose has grown quite quickly over the past decade, expanding to other states and franchising the business. What factors enabled this growth, and how do you see this growth continuing in the years ahead?

Prior to 2015, Smiling Moose’s growth had been very organic. Entrepreneurs traveled to Colorado for work or vacation, experienced our fresh and unique menu, enjoyed the welcoming environment and wanted to open a deli of their own. When I joined in 2013, our founders and I realized there was a great opportunity to accelerate our growth.

The primary reason for Smiling Moose’s brand overhaul is to meet our goal of opening three to five new delis in 2016, as well as meet our longer-term goal of having more than 100 delis by 2020. The path for growth will include working with current franchisees to expand existing trade areas, adding new franchisees with restaurant experience and a desire to own multiple units, and strategically expanding the supply chain to support efficient growth and ensure brand quality and consistency.

Smiling Moose will focus growth in areas where the demographic mirrors its guest base, such as Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. 

4. What are some of the challenges you encountered as you grew the business? How did you overcome them?

Two years ago, we were recognized for having awesome food, a great culture and truly loyal guests, but our biggest challenge was that we did not have a unifying brand or the infrastructure and systems necessary for growth. 

The good news is that we embodied the elements of a successful concept that are hard to achieve. Tweaking the brand and building the infrastructure around the already successful concept, while time consuming and disruptive, was a more manageable challenge. In order to actually reposition the brand and lay the technology and systems foundations, we engaged outside resources–don’t be afraid to do so! We did a tremendous amount of research and partnered with those organizations who were a good cultural fit and provided “best in class” solutions. It has been a two-year adventure, but we now feel that we are positioned for growth and that the time spent will turn out to be a great investment in the longevity and success of the brand.  

5. What advice would you offer to a fast casual restaurant looking to grow? What should they consider if they’re thinking about franchising the business, and how does their size/existing footprint affect these considerations?

First and foremost, it is important to understand your concept’s authentic reason for being from a consumer perspective. It is important to understand why guests frequent your concept and how they interact with the brand.  If this is clear, many of the elements—from the menu and service model, to the interior design and footprint—fall into place. 

Whether a concept is looking to grow with a corporate store or franchise model, it is important to spend the time upfront to ensure that the operating model is scalable and establish the infrastructure, whether it be the menu, the design, the technology or the training programs. In a franchise model, it is critical to understand the benefits of your concept vis-a-vis the competition. While it is also important to have the support programs in place, these programs are the entre into the game, and not necessarily the differentiator.  Finally, understanding the economic model of your concept will lead to better real estate decisions and will likely set prospective franchisees up for success. 

Every concept is different and it is important to not only understand the consumer demographic information surrounding a particular location, but also to set target ranges for sales to investment, sales per square foot and occupancy costs in order to optimize a process by which decisions are made.

6. Looking at the restaurant industry as a whole, what do you see as some of the biggest opportunities facing the sector right now? The biggest challenges?

I see the biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge to be one and the same.  I see the next big industry trend to be the continuing evolution of guest-facing technology that will enhance the guest experience via online or mobile ordering, entertainment and mobile payment. New technologies will also continue to generate significant aggregations of data that brands can use to understand guest behavior and, ultimately, market to individuals, further customizing the experience.

But how does an organization keep up with consumer-based technology advances and deploy fully integrated systems that will enhance the guest experience and maintain relevance in a quickly changing environment? While it is tempting to adopt the newest, sexiest technology, it is more important to have a strategic technology roadmap that results in an enhanced guest experience and/or improved operational efficiency.  

Another significant challenge is the availability and rising cost of labor. The challenge here, and the opportunity, is the need to create a culture and work environment that is differentiating and encourages retention. Now is the time to evaluate how well your organization’s culture is embodied throughout the entire team and whether your work environment appeals to the employees that you are attempting to retain. Retention in the current labor environment is a significant challenge, but the cost of higher-than-normal employee turnover is not sustainable.