I’m on the phone with the CEO and Marketing Director of Qdoba Mexican Grill, to hear about how they plan to turn around the me-too burrito company—the one that’s getting womped by the titan Chipotle (even if the stock price says otherwise)—into a place you’d choose to eat at on purpose.
And these guys can’t stop talking about an imaginary woman.
Qdoba’s big plan, to redesign everything from store architecture, to the branding, to the menu, to how employees talk to customers—revolves around the tastes of a person they’ve never seen because she doesn’t exist. She’s called the Quentessa.
"There’s one line that I come back to—guys want her number, and girls kind of want it, too," explains vice president of brand marketing David Craven. "She’s naturally magnetic, leads a story-filled life, and invites others to do the same. She’s a personification of flavor in our lives."
She also really, really likes eating at Qdoba.
Always The Bridesmaid
In 1995, two years after Steve Ells rolled Chipotle’s first Mission-style burrito in Denver, CO, competition moved into town. It was called Zuma Fresh Mexican Grill (later renamed Z-Teca, after a lawsuit; then Qdoba, after another). From the moment the chain opened, it has never managed to shake its runner-up vibe. Chipotle took financing from McDonald’s to fuel rapid expansion and master operational efficiency. Qdoba stumbled into the new millennium, owned by a private equity firm, before it was bought outright by Jack-in-the-Box.
Today, Chipotle is pushing 2,000 locations and $3.2 billion in revenue, while Qdoba is less than a third of that size in both respects, sitting in burrito purgatory alongside Moe’s Southwest Grill. But to the refried bean counters on Wall Street, Qdoba’s actually not in bad shape. While Chipotle is falling slightly short of their massive growth expectations, with murmurs that the franchise has plateaued, Qdoba overdelivered with a relatively superb 2014, thanks largely to menu and pricing tweaks that are making more customers come back.
Now, for the first time in the company’s 20-year history, president Tim Casey would like to steer Qdoba out of Chipotle’s wake. After a 12-firm competition, he enlisted the brand strategy and design firm Prophet to remake every bit of the brand—from the logo to the chairs—while hiring a small team of in-house designers for the first time to manage the process.
"When we delved into the consumer research, what we heard was the consumer viewed Qdoba as a me-too brand, and a me-too brand to Chipotle. No brand wants to be in that place," Casey says. "The more we learned, it occurred to me that the brand need to take a pivot to own a white space in the industry."
But what would a new Qdoba—one that wasn't just a me-too Chipotle—look like? Prophet's breakthrough was introducing a series of personas to Qdoba management. They were characters, essentially, that could offer a brand consciousness, an imaginary person with a certain flare capable of wooing their target customer of 18-24 year olds, skewing male.
"I remember the moment quite vividly, sitting in Tim’s office, when [Prophet] presented the Quentessa. Tim and I looked at each other, and we mouthed, 'That’s it.' It was one of those moments where were exactly on the same page," Casey says. "There wasn’t any image per se. There was a lot of inspirational elements, I'd say, that helped us grasp who she was. Some of those points of inspiration were characters in movies—that’s an easy way for people in brands to wrap their heads around obtuse ideas. We thought about Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. Mila Kunis in her Jim Beam work recently. Uma Thurman in some of her movies—like Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill—obviously not the full scope! But this idea of having boldness. Flavor. Badass without trying. Sophisticated, yet approachable and successful."
The White Space
The Quentessa served as a thematic compass in navigating towards Qdoba's "white space," where each new element was the anti-Chipotle. Whereas Chipotles are built for efficiency and durability, defined by stainless steel tables bolted into the floor and colors only injected by the food and tabasco bottles, Prophet redesigned Qdoba to encourage you to linger a while, with wood-topped tables to be rearrangeable for small groups, plastered interiors with a bright color palette and graphics—sometimes literally, and sometimes loosely—inspired by Mexican iconography, from the Bingo-like game Lotería, the masked wrestlers of lucha libre and the candy skulls of Dia de los Muertos.
"We [created] a visual system that’s not based upon the clichés of the Mexican grill category," explains Prophet CCO Peter Dixon. "Not sombreros and cactuses, but street art and strong visual tropes of Mexican culture."
Furthermore, each space is custom curated with its own finishes and local art to feel unique rather than chain produced, in a nod to the mass customization approach pioneered by Starbucks.
"We thought, what is the type of space, literally, that the Quentessa would want to invite people into," Craven explains. "How would she approach seating, art on the walls, bathrooms?"
In fact, Qdoba claims to have spent almost as much time on their bathrooms as the rest of their new stores. For women? It’s modeled as the Quentessa’s powder room, with a casually distressed wardrobe and pseudo-gothic mirror. For men? It’s meant to be a luchadore’s locker room, complete with actual lockers and posters.
"When you look at the restaurant landscape in general, particularly chains, the bathroom is the most sterile, least interesting, devoid-of-personality place in the entire restaurant," Craven says. "That’s where we felt we have a chance to go in and inject a copious amount of flavor."
The Food Makeover
Other flavors are more literal. Namely, when I mention the unimpressiveness of the single bland chicken burrito I’d eaten at a Qdoba countless years back, Craven responds, "I can’t disagree with that. It’s what we heard from the consumer."
Whereas Chipotle is the undisputed king of the chain burrito, Qdoba believes their competitor has forgotten about the taco. And in fact, while taco culture is hotter than ever—from LA to NY, from food truck to fine-dining room—there’s no major chain that currently owns taco mindshare in the fast casual space.
When customers order at Qdoba’s new prototype stores, they’re greeted with a comal—a traditional flat-top tortilla grill—that will toast raw masa and wheat dough into a tortilla. It’s a luchador's crotch kick to Chipotle’s pre-made flour tortillas heated on a press—and another example of Qdoba filling open white space.
"It takes that one-dimensional flavor experience and makes it multi-sensory," explains John Cooke, VP of Menu Strategy and Innovation. "You’re not only getting the taste of the tortilla, you’re seeing it bubble on the comal as it cooks. You’re getting the visual cue."
With a fresh tortilla at the base, Qdoba hopes to sell you their Knockout Tacos—filled with seasonally rotated options like lime chili brisket, tequila chicken, or steak with caesar salad. The combinations aren’t necessarily authentic, but they promise to be anything but a bland pile of under-seasoned chicken, rice, and beans. Strategically, tacos holds a lot of marketing advantages over selling burritos.
"You can be more experimental," says Dixon. "You can share them. They’re a great social food. You can mix and match in one meal."
Tacos also embody the "stick some tables together" philosophy of eating with friends that Qdoba’s researchers believe their customer wants. And they can, as a product, look distinctive. A burrito is a beige white blob wrapped in foil. Tacos showcase their own colorful ingredients, naturally—which will play across Qdoba’s promotional photography.
The Human Touch
Yet while all these elements of design are important to Qdoba’s new brand, the company has taken small, but calculated steps to making the face-to-face ordering process better, too. In the last year, Qdoba has eliminated upcharges on items like their queso, vegetables, and guacamole (again, a counter-step to the now infamous skint-guac Chipotle meme). The obvious effect is that a consumer doesn’t feel as nickel-and-dimed, and they’re more likely to try Qdoba’s add-ons.
The snowball effect, however, is that with the price quotient removed, employees are free to have more human conversations with customers. And with new, polo-shirt free uniforms—which includes options like hoodies—hopefully they won’t feel like they’re part of a corporate machine.
"We want employees to be themselves. We didn’t want to be this machine-like assembly line, like you’ll find at other brands," Craven says. "We wanted employees to feel free to express their recommendations."
Qdoba’s top brass genuinely wants the hourly-paid person behind the counter to tell you to try guacamole because they love it. But what if an employee really dislikes something? What if they hate the brisket tacos? Or they find the prospect of extra veggies gross?
"I’m not worried about that," Casey says. "When I go to a restaurant and a server says, ‘I wouldn’t get that, but I love this,’ to me, it gives me that much more confidence in the brand and person serving me. We know it happens. We encourage it to happen."
"The worst thing you could hear is a server who says everything’s good," adds Cooke. "You don’t trust anything they say. We want our team members to be talking about the flavors they personally love."
Strong opinions. Individual style. Nice bathrooms. That’s just how the Quentessa would want it.