The untold truth of Moe's Southwest Grill

On a seemingly normal day in the summer of 2016, the unthinkable happened in the world of Mexican fast food.

Chipotle — that's right, America's long-time favorite burrito joint with more than 2,000 locations worldwide — was dethroned as the country's most popular Mexican chain. So too was Taco Bell, our country's first fast food taco chain, with more than 7,000 locations worldwide.  

The Fast Casual Mexican victor and usurper of taco giants was an unlikely contestant: a spunky, Atlanta-based Tex-Mex restaurant with less than 700 locations called Moe's Southwest Grill. And lil' Moe's victory wasn't just a one-time fluke: the restaurant toppled Chipotle, Taco Bell, and all other popular Tex-Mex chains to win best most popular Fast Casual Mexican Restaurant again in 2017.

Founded 18 years ago, Moe's has since spread from Georgia to nearly all 50 states, and now boasts just over 700 locations. With less than half the locations of Chipotle and 1/10 of the locations of Taco Bell, how did the restaurant manage overtake the these Tex-Mex gods as America's most beloved Mexican fast food chain? To find out, we dug up the untold truth of Moe's Southwest Grill.

Moe is so much more than some guy named Moe

The Moe of Moe's Southwest is neither the chef nor founder… nor the founder's dog. In fact, Moe's stands for for Musicians, Outlaws, and Entertainers, a mysterious acronym that has nothing to do with the tacos, or guacamole, or any kind of Southwestern food at all. Here's a breakdown of what it all means:

  • Musicians: Moe's celebrates musical legends who "left this world too early," using deceased musicians as inspiration for restaurant artwork and the background music in each location.
  • Outlaws: Moe's considers itself to be a bit of an outlaw among Tex-Mex chains, eschewing corporate pretentiousness and mass-produced, frozen foods, in favor of creativity. They point to their highly customizable menu, which invites customers to design their own burritos, bowls, quesadillas, nachos, and more, with a choice of more than 20 proteins, veggies, and other ingredients.
  • Entertainers: Just like iconic musicians, Moe's holds a deep appreciation for pop culture. Odes to their favorite movies and performers are evident in the names of dishes like "The First Rule of Chicken Club" and "Three Amigos Tacos."

If you want to work there, you have to pass this one test…

Walk into any Moe's Southwest Grill location, and you'll be greeted with the enthusiastic holler, "Welcome to Moe's!"

Yelling this zealous yawp of a greeting is required of front counter line workers whenever a customer enters the restaurant. When questioned about its origins, founder and chief executive Martin Sprock explained that he always found it awkward when fast-food counter staff simply stare at you in silence upon entrance. According to President Bruce Schroder, the greeting is an integral part of the company's offbeat culture.

That's why, in order to be hired at Moe's, prospective employees must deliver a convincing "Welcome to Moe's" during the interview process. As Schroder explained, being able to yell the catchphrase confidently shows that you are outgoing and "kooky" enough not to feel self-conscious.

To ensure every customer was being treated to the boisterous salutation, Sprock sometimes hires secret shoppers to walk into Moe's restaurants. According to Moe's employees on Reddit, missing a greeting or two every once and a while is fine, but you might get a talking-to from the boss if it becomes a habit.

The enthusiastic greeting has been known to scare people

While Moe's rallying cry is meant to feel welcoming, the sudden roar of "Welcome to Moe's" has been known to frighten unsuspecting customers — and annoy returning ones.

One such regular was so irritated about the loud salutation, he started a petition to end the tradition once and for all. In the end, the petition never earned more than 22 signatures and was closed.

However, if you happen to rifle through reviews of Moe's nationwide, you'll find plenty of others who agree with the irritated petition writer. Some customers complain of how the greeting gets repeated throughout their dining experience as new guests enter. Others find the screaming "kinda frightening" while still others describe it as "loud and confusing." One blogger boldly wrote that forcing staffers to scream "Welcome to Moe's" at every customer as part of their job should be a crime. Another human resource expert noted that the greeting is a high burden for employees to carry, and when cynical staffers deliver a half-hearted greeting it can put a damper on a customer's dining experience.

Moe's, for their part, insists they aren't trying to scare anyone. The greeting is meant to "welcome everyone with open arms and a smile."

Moe's loves music so much, it got them in trouble

Moe's is passionate about music, as demonstrated by the "M" for music in their acronymic name. But not just any music. Moe's poo-poos current, top 40 hits in favor of songs of musicians passed. Background music at Moe's is a carefully curated playlist of tunes from deceased, influential musicians, from Frank Sinatra, to Jimmy Hendrix, to Amy Winehouse.

A glimpse at one of their playlists on Spotify reveals gem after gem, like Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" and Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising."

To complement the background music, Moe's covers restaurant walls with artwork of dearly departed musicians. At Moe's locations everywhere, you can admire portraits of Bob Marley, Janis Joplin, and the like.

So deep is Moe's affinity for legendary rock stars, in fact, it once got the restaurant in trouble. In 2005 the heirs of Jerry Garcia sued the restaurant for using his name to sell food. The lawsuit filed by Jerry Garcia Estate stated that the chain never sought licensing for its portraits of Jerry Garcia and misappropriated the lyrics, "Trouble ahead, trouble behind, just have my taco ready in time" that appear beneath the portrait. Moe's removed the painting after being contacted by the estate.

Here's the deal with the free chips and salsa

One majorly cool way Moe's differs from Chipotle, Qdoba, and Taco Bell? At Chipotle and Qdoba, a single order of chips and salsa will set you back around $2. They're just a little less expensive at Taco Bell. At Moe's, chips and salsa are not only free with every order, they're bottomless.

Moe's flash-fries chips fresh every day, doles them out by the basketful, and invites you to pair them with complimentary, freshly made salsas from their self-serve salsa and pico de gallo bar.

The only rule(s)? You do have to make a purchase before they'll hand you that basket of fresh, warm tortilla chips. And hold on to the basket, so when you finish you can waltz back up to the counter and ask your friendly counter worker for a refill, free of charge. Some sources even report that you can ask an extra bag of chips and cup to fill with salsa to take home.

The Carolina Reaper salsa is made from the world's hottest chili pepper

As we've already mentioned, at every Moe's Southwest Grill nationwide, you'll find a serve-your-own-salsa bar stocked with freshly crafted salsas. There's the classic Kaiser, the creamy Space B'Green Us, the tangy Tomatillo, and fire-roasted El Guapo.

In 2018, Moe's added the infamous Carolina Reaper Salsa back to the spread. The "scary hot" salsa is made from the Carolina Reaper, the world's hottest chili pepper with an average Scoville Heat Units (SHU) of 1,569,300. To give you some perspective, jalapeno peppers tend to score between 2,500 and 5,000 SHUs. So powerful is the pepper, it has — on rare occasions — been known to cause the extremely rare "thunderclap" headache, a brief, intensely painful headache that intensifies quickly.

To cook with this flaming-hot pepper, Moe's chefs have to wear gloves to protect their hands. In addition to the Carolina Reaper, the salsa includes tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, and cilantro. The unique salsa will be available until early 2019. This is the second time it's been on the menu, so heat lovers can only cross their fingers it'll make another return.

Moe's waged a ruthless war on Chipotle queso

For nearly two decades, Moe's has cornered the fast-food queso market with its natural, three-cheese queso dip. That's why when Chipotle unveiled a queso recipe of its own, Moe's waged a full on queso war.

Less than 48 hours after Chipotle announced the new menu item, Moe's declared battle, crying there could only one queso to rule them all. Their strategy: hand out free cups of queso to prove their's was the superior cheese. Free queso was available at the Moe's Bryant Park location near the New York Chipotle Next kitchen, where Chipotle queso was first being tested. Moe's also hooked up customers with free queso if they downloaded the Moe's Rewards app.  

Delivering another powerful blow, Moe's fired off a press release warning consumers that "queso impersonators are claiming to serve the perfection that is smooth and delectable queso, attempting to fool consumers across the nation." The release included instructions on how to determine if you'd been a victim of "imposter queso," pointing to signs like grainy texture and a lack of Instagramable cheese pull. 

To be fair, Chipotle's original queso did suck.

Here are the pop culture references on Moe's menu

Moe's menu is littered with witty pop culture references. We scoured past and present menus to find the ones that made us giggle:

  • Art Vandelay: Moe's vegetarian burrito is named Art Vandelay after the fictional character George invents during a job interview. He reuses the fake name throughout the series, naming Art as a fictional boyfriend of Elaine's and again as an author he's read during an interview at a publishing house.

  • Close Talker: The Southwest Salad is another Seinfeld reference. In The Raincoats episode, Elaine dates a "close talker," e.g. a person who gets uncomfortably near to the person they are talking to.

  • El Guapo: This fire-roasted tomato salsa was named after the villain in Three Amigos.

  • John Coctostan: The hearty quesadilla shares the fake name given by an undercover reporter played by Chevy Chase in the movie Fletch.

  • Alright Alright Alright: The Alright Alright Alright nachos were named for a quote from the movie Dazed and Confused.  

  • Wrong Doug: A southwest wrap similar to the Taco Bell Crunchwrap, Wrong Doug references a scene from The Hangover.

  • Earmuffs: This burrito bowl references a quote from the movie Old School.

Moe's provided a magical queso fountain for one couple's wedding recipe

Once upon a time, a woman named Beth Rhodes and man named David Bley met in Birmingham, Alabama and fell in love. Both quirky, creative, and burritos fans, the two lovebirds decided to get married. But they didn't want an ordinary wedding.

So when Rhode's dad found out that Moe's Southwest Grill was throwing a contest with Moe's wedding catering as a prize, the couple decided to try their luck. Together, they created a video about mini-burritos who got married themselves, complete with flashing lights and dancing burritos.  

Out of 500 entries, a panel of 10 judges chose Rhodes and Bley as the winners. Their prize? A free wedding reception with a DJ and catering for up to 150 guests — including burritos, a salsa bar, and a magical fountain gushing creamy queso.

Runner-up contestants were also rewarded with tasty prizes, including free Moe's catering for a 50-person rehearsal dinner and free burritos for a year.

You can now purchase Moe's products at your local grocery store

Debatably one of the biggest drawbacks with Moe's is its lack of locations compared to say, Chipotle or Taco Bell. Depending on where you live, you might not even have heard of Moe's.

So here's the good news: Moe's Southwest Grill offers their signature salsas, dips, and entrees at grocery stores around the country — meaning you can recreate the Moe's restaurant experience in your very own kitchen.

In addition to jars of their mild, medium, and hot salsa, Moe's distributes dips like their chunky and spicy guacamole, their roasted corn poblano queso, and five-layer guacamole-salsa-sour-cream-dip. Moe's also sells complete meals you can defrost and eat, including chicken empanadas, chimichangas, and mini tacos. In 2017, the Tex-Mex chain partnered with Kellogg to create a line of Southwest-inspired breakfast bowls. The breakfast line includes classics like Huevos Rancheros and Chicken Chilaquiles, in addition to creative fusions like the Chorizo Benedicts.

Moe's products are available at grocery stores like Walmart, Kroger, and H-E-B. And if you don't feel like leaving your house, you can always have Moe's salsa delivered right to your doorstep via Amazon.