Pam Boyd
pboyd@eaglevalleyenteprise.com

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March 27, 2013
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Home cooked empire

It's not like Moe's Original Bar B Que is a local secret. But its popularity beyond this valley might surprise some locals.

In fact, the converted gas station site in Eagle is ground zero for Moe's nationwide "southern soul food revival." With 22 restaurants now open in Colorado, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Maine, plus another four slated to open by the end of June, Moe's has found a great recipe for success. The main ingredients are hard work with a commitment to quality mixed in with a generous dash of community involvement and a generous dollop of plain ol' fun.

Moe's unique flavor - as a product and as a business - has its roots down South in Alabama where Mike Fernandez of Tuscaloosa, Ben Gilbert of Athens, and Jeff Kennedy of Huntsville, met at the University of Alabama.

"They instantly became friends and had a mutual interest in all things Southern: BBQ, blues, college football and whiskey," notes the Moe's website.

On the barbecue side, back in 1988, Fernandez learned the ins and outs of fire roasting meats from a master - Moses Day - the guy referenced in the "Moe's Original" moniker. "When Moses fired up his backyard barrel pit, everyone in T-Town knew where to go," notes the Moe's website. Gilbert and Kennedy were also drawn to Day's tutelage and learned the his distinct methods for signature BBQ. Fine times were had by all during those college years at 'Bama.

But unlike most college friendships, the Moe's boys were also building the base for a successful business with a hat trick of formidable skills. Fernandez is the guy with a culinary degree. Gilbert has a business management degree and Kennedy has a marketing degree. That's not to say they blazed out of school with an entrepreneurial drive aimed at shaking up the American food landscape. Actually, they opted to be ski bums for a while. All three Moe's boys eventually wound up working in separate restaurants in Vail and their revival launched with decidedly humble beginnings.

They weren't in the valley too long before the Alabama natives began longing for some true barbecue, the way Day taught them to cook it.

"We started cooking some pig for family and friends," said Kennedy. Their kitchen was a charcoal grill outside his doublewide trailer on the river near Minturn. Then the Moe's founders decided to step up their operation and built a $600 pit at Randy Quintana's Minturn junkyard. Moe's Original catering was in business.

Building on their catering success, the boys purchased a 40-foot gooseneck hay trailer and converted it into a health department-certified concessions trailer, complete with a tin roof and barn wood siding. They parked the trailer at a prominent Edwards street corner, set out some hay bales for seats and wire spools for tables and opened shop.

"We sold out there for 100 days straight and decided we should get a site," said Gilbert.

In 2002, Moe's opened its first restaurant - a carry out joint at Lionshead. By the 2004-05 ski season, Moe's graduated to a larger locale in Lionshead and by 2005, the boys were ready to design and build their own restaurant space. That's when Moe's made the move to Eagle.

For their first five years in Eagle, Moe's was located in the shopping strip behind the Eagle Diner.

"We saw that everyone was moving down this direction," said Gilbert. By everyone, they included themselves. While Gilbert and his wife and two kids live in Edwards, Kennedy and his wife and two kids live in Eagle. So does Fernandez and his wife.

With restaurants in Vail and Eagle, the Moe's boys developed and refined their product - signature barbecued meats combined with an eclectic list of homemade side dishes.

"We cook fresh all day, every day. It keeps our staff engaged in the product," said Kennedy. "The sides are always changing and it makes it fun for us and fun for the customers. It's all home-cooked food."

"We start with the product and every day it is different," said Fernandez.

That means if sweet potato fries are on the menu, someone has actually peeled, sliced and cooked them. Maybe today's mac and cheese has a bit more cheddar than yesterday's. While there is a standard list of sides, including baked beans, marinated slaw, potato salad and banana pudding, the list of special sides can include sweet potato casserole, jalapeno grits, collard greens or anything else the crew is inspired to cook.

Like any good businessmen, the Moe's boys aren't spilling all their culinary secrets. But they are forthcoming about a few of their regular practices. They cook using applewood for a mellow flavor and their barbecue menu includes pulled pork, chicken, ribs and turkey. For variety, Moe's also includes fried shrimp and catfish and hot wings. Their business model has a central pillar - hard work.

Just because they are the brains behind the business doesn't mean the Moe's boys are done delivering brawn. Customers regularly find them minding the stove or manning the cash register.

"The most important thing for business success is to have a good work ethic," said Gilbert.

"We were just in Alabama at one of the restaurants and one of the employees said, 'I bet you can't wait to get home' because we were putting in 100-hour weeks," said Kennedy. "But that's not unusual. You can find us here washing dishes next to a 16-year-old kid."

The boys believe their hard-working ways were central to the business's success through the Great Recession. The national economic downturn actually proved to be a boon for Moe's - the founders were able to return to Alabama and recruit recent college grads who were having trouble finding jobs. Figuring it's what brought them to the valley, the Moe's founders have routinely attracted young workers from the South with the promise of jobs and the chance to ski.

The business's winning combination of quality homemade food at reasonable prices also fed Moe's popularity during a time when people have been watching their dollars.

"More than anything, we saw there was a niche that needed to be filled," said Gilbert of the Moe's success. "The food is definitely what keeps people coming back."

That niche isn't Eagle County-centered. What has worked locally has also worked nationally. The Moe's boys returned to their roots in 2006 and opened their first Alabama restaurant. Various friends and family members are operating Moe's joints in five states and the business isn't done growing.

"We always wanted to grow the business. That was always the vision, but we had no idea it would be what it is today," said Gilbert.

When a new Moe's opens, a five-person team from the Eagle County locations travels to the new site to teach the staff about the Moe's method. The Eagle site is a Moe's prototype. It's a funky locale with a bit of history. University of Alabama memorabilia decorate the walls and friendly staff, many of whom speak with a Southern drawl, take orders and keep the place clean.

Moe's in Eagle also demonstrates an important business ethic - community involvement. The Moe's boys often open their business doors for local fund-raisers - everything from a benefit for families affected by hurricanes in Alabama to the recent Eagle 20/20 event.

"We are very family and community oriented," said Kennedy.

Even after a decade of preparing barbecue every day, the three Moe's guys still love the food. Fernandez said the fried shrimp sandwich is his personal favorite, while Kennedy cites the barbecued turkey breast and grits with jalapeno.

"I would eat a wing or a rib every day," said Gilbert.

And even with all the challenges that come with owning their own burgeoning empire, the Moe's boys say they still love serving up their signature food every day.

"We have a great time doing this. All in all, Moe's is a great place to work," said Gilbert.

To learn more about Moe's Original Bar B Cue, visit the company's website at www.moesoriginalbbq.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Mar 27, 2013 01:10PM Published Mar 27, 2013 12:51PM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.