The Newcombs, who built the 81-unit restaurant chain, Jackson-based McAlister’s Corp., into an $81-million business, have moved from franchisers to franchisees.
After mulling over various restaurant concepts for a couple of years, Chris Newcomb opted to buy the Mississippi franchise rights for a hot new restaurant that’s garnering rave reviews — Moe’s Southwest Grill, aimed at casually health-conscious consumers. Its founder, Martin Sprock, the Atlanta businessman who brought us the international chain of 140 Planet Smoothies, describes Moe’s as “a Mexican Subway.”
“We’re a franchisee for the first time,” said Chris Newcomb. “This concept is new and fresh. We want to see what it’s like being on the other end. At the same time, we’ll keep supporting McAlister’s.”
Newcomb, his dad, dentist Don Newcomb, and Debra Bryson — all original founders of the McAlister’s concept for “a unique combination of hearty-sized deli fare, served quickly with a side of Southern charm” — are partners in the new deal, which also includes territory in Alabama.
“We were lucky in building a fantastic team with McAlister’s and I’d like to try it again,” said Don Newcomb. “We looked all over — New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas and New Orleans — for a new concept that we thought was cutting edge and we finally found Moe’s in Atlanta.”
The Moe’s prototype, an 80-seat eat-in/take-out restaurant with “no freezers, no microwaves and no lard,” opened a little more than two years ago in Buckhead’s Peach Shopping Center in Atlanta. The southwestern restaurant, landscaped with idol-sized paintings of late ‘60s pop stars with hilarious faux quotes on Mexican grub, such as Bob Marley saying, “Let me roll my own (burrito),” with background music from Janis Joplin and the like, taps pop culture and takes a Subway-esque approach to burrito construction with the mantra “fresh food and inexpensive prices.”
Most menu items cost less than $5, and pay homage to TV classics like “Friends.” Samplings from the menu include tacos named after Ugly Naked Guy and the Other Lewinsky, a side item called Cup of Fat (description unavailable), and a Joey Bag of Donuts burrito. There’s a $1.99 kids menu with offerings like Puff the Magic Dragon and Moo Moo Mr. Cow. The salsa bar features a half dozen varieties of salsa — from mild to spicy — made fresh daily.
“It’s a really neat concept,” said Don Newcomb. “The food is fresh and tastes really good. There was a good working atmosphere among the employees, which is just what you’re looking for in the restaurant business.”
Martin Sprock, CEO of Moe’s, said the restaurant concept was the culmination of seven years’ experience operating Planet Smoothies.
“We got our feet wet with Planet Smoothie and learned a few tricks of the trade and now we’re writing the model of Moe’s Southwest Grill,” he said. “We saw a few other groups around the country doing it, but we thought we could do better with our concept and make it special.”
Chris Newcomb said Moe’s has a few similarities to McAlister’s.
“You come in and place your order at the hot bar and we make it in front of you as you go down the line,” he said. “By the time you get to the register to pay, your order’s ready. You won’t have as much wait time as at McAlister’s.”
The biggest difference? Moe’s sells alcohol, mostly beer and frozen margaritas called Moe-Ritas.
Even though he will remain on the McAlister’s Corp. board of directors and a shareholder, Chris Newcomb resigned Jan. 3 from his post as senior vice president in charge of restaurant operations. Instead, he’ll focus on opening four Moe’s restaurants in Mississippi. The first restaurant will open Feb. 25 on Old Square Road in Jackson and the second will open by the end of March on Lakeland Drive behind Corky’s BBQ. By the end of August, restaurants in Madison and on Hardy Street in Hattiesburg will be open, he said.
Last month, Michael J. Stack, chairman and CEO of McAlister’s, resigned suddenly in the middle of a reorganization plan. In 1999, Stack and his long time partner Philip Friedman led a management buyout of McAlister’s Corp.
Chris Newcomb said, “My resignation had nothing to do with anything going on at McAlister’s.”
“To leave McAlister’s after 13 years was a hard decision,” he said. “McAlister’s is growing and will continue growing, but this is something new and fresh I can do here in Jackson and concentrate on Mississippi.”
By the end of 2002, McAlister’s revenues are expected to top $100 million with more than 100 locations in 18 states.Sprock said he was surprised that the Newcombs were interested in his franchise.
“Don Newcomb could do anything he wants and certainly could retire, but he saw something he liked,” Sprock said. “We’re extremely proud that a guy of his stature would come in and take a chance on a young franchise.”
Don Newcomb said his son deserves the credit for McAlister’s success and for taking on the Moe’s project.
“Chris is a great operator,” he said. “He’s the one who really built McAlister’s.”
For now, Chris Newcomb will be rolling his own.
“This coming week, I’ll be in a training session in Atlanta making burritos,” he said, with a laugh. “It’ll be fun.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org</a.