What Mad Mex did next

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No brand can remain exactly the same year after year and hope to stay ahead of the competition, particularly one that is operating as a fast food business. 

The franchise dining chain Mad Mex Fresh Mexican Grill serves 70,000 customers every week, predominantly health conscious customers aged 18 to 35, says chief operating officer and transitioning chief executive officer, Fabian Rebelo.

“There are so many choices today that unless you deliver, day in, day out, you’re failing.”

So things are moving at Mad Mex, and that means more than just a quick slick of paint for a new look.

Rather than focusing simply on freshening up the design, the task has been to ask ‘what does the brand mean?’.

“Mad Mex represents inspired Mexican cuisine with a large serve of fresh attitude,” Rebelo says in response. This means delivering against increasing demand for healthy fast food. Mad Mex crafts bold flavours and authentic Mexican recipes from fresh produce and serves real food fast, he explains.

“We have been trading for eight years and progressing the brand, it’s a constantly evolving process. We are having our second store brand refresh in two years when we launch our Pacific Fair store in Queensland later this year. It’s vital for the brand to keep moving forward, constant improvement.”

The goal, says Rebelo, is to be the world’s best.

The casual dining Mexican restaurants will have a new look, adopted as franchisees renew their agreements. A team of designers and builders has brought alive the brand refresh which is designed to catapult the popular brand to a new level.

The brand as it will appear soon in version 3.0 is a distant cousin to the distressed, dark brown environment of Mad Mex stores when they launched. Stores which opened as version 2.0 took the look to a brighter more Baja inspired décor which was friendlier to both male and female customers, says Rebelo.

With female customers accounting for half of the chain’s business, this was an important development.  Now the Baja vision has been refined and relaxed, so version 3.0 sports dulled-down colour hues and more of a cantina feel to the fast dining space.

“It’s more urban and sophisticated,” says Rebelo.

But what about the business that lies beneath the muted tones of the décor?

“The brand has become more powerful as a franchise because of profitability, the supply chain and operations. We’ve started to become better at every slice of the pie.

“Profitability is a function of better training, better support and better operations.”

Over the last 12 months operations have improved significantly, he says. Now it takes just 60 seconds from ‘hello’ to a customised order appearing at the till.

Some customer feedback and research has fed into the latest brand distillation at Mad Mex.

“We’ve made constant incremental improvements to the system and food,” Rebelo explains.

On the menu the beans and sauces have been enhanced; the new flavours reflect the desire to keep improving.

“The authenticity of product flavour is intact,” assures Rebelo. “This is really important to us.”

The supply chain is both local and international; protein and produce sourced locally, sauces imported.

“We travel to Central America and Texas to develop our salsas and beans using authentic ingredients from these regions. Our company has a strong culture of ongoing improvement with our flavour profile and ingredient quality. All of our salsas and beans are cooked and sourced from these regions, delivering an honest and authentic flavour.”

Rebelo has been COO for a year and is appreciative of the team that directs all aspects of the business. “We have a strong senior management team, with well-rounded experience domestically and internationally. There is a breadth of knowledge on board.

“My task is to take it forward a whole bunch of levers. Every time you pull one something wonderful happens.

“The good thing is everyone wants things done earlier than expected, to make it happen yesterday. But there’s also an attitude that if something is not world class, we’ll look at it again tomorrow. It’s nice to be around these people.”

Building the franchise brand

“I see my role with franchise and company owned stores as the same. The goal is to grow the individual asset value and grow the brand. You grow the brand by improving product, attracting customers and great people to the brand.”

Head honcho and founder Clovis Young has been passionate about Mexican food since growing up in San Francisco and San Diego. The management team includes fellow American, company director Phillip Blanco, previously GM of Australian operations and the international development manager for Gloria Jean’s Coffees. 

Add to this marketer Alex Deacon, ex-Yum and Gloria Jean’s Coffees; Darren Silber, the former general manager of The Apparel Group and now Mad Mex chief financial officer; and Melissa Wharton, previously with Grill’d and Lindt.

After working with Bob LaPointe of Lone Star fame for many years, economist-trained Rebelo built an Australian retail consultancy firm. Ten years on, with clients including franchise brands Bob Janes T-Mart and Nandos, he sold the business and was looking for a new project when approached by Clovis Young.

“It’s been everything I expected, challenging and rewarding. A lot of great people are so sophisticated and competent, they make it look simple.”

Building a strong franchise network

“We’re about sound, mature growth. Our system will always get the right amount of franchises to the right people.  Selling a franchise is not where it ends. That’s not the final touch point for us, we don’t wave goodbye at that point.

“It’s the opposite for us, that’s the point you’re welcomed in. That’s the start of our relationship and journey together. This is where our training, development, coaching, marketing, operational and sales support kicks in and then dovetails into the path moving forward.

“We are diligent through our financial approval process. We will not allow a new business partner to extend themselves beyond a prudent capacity. It’s vital their capital equation is sound and robust.”

Rebelo explains the process includes interviews with the directors of the business and four-hour in-store trials.

“From the initial sales enquiry, our process is very diligent all the way through to the final approval. We’re not focused on sales, were looking for a culture fit and importantly the characteristics to ensure our new partners are successful. We’re very conscious of cultural fit and aptitude.”

He is confident the system works: half of the franchisees in the network operate more than one store.

To qualify for a second or third site, franchisees need to meet certain criteria: achieve high percentage pass rates in monthly mystery shopping reports, profitability and staff training and meet benchmarks in the quarterly audits.

When franchisees take on a second store Mad Mex steps up to help the transition; it employs staff managers to take on one of the outlets while the franchisee manages the other.

“All franchisees work in stores. Everyone in head office will have worked in store once every six months. We’re all really close to the product, it’s part of our success.”

The company also appoints franchisees based on their passion, rather than their hospitality or business skill set.

“We’re flexible on skills. Aptitude and attitude is everything,” explains Rebelo.

Wallflowers just don’t make it in that environment; personality is a must.

“People who are engaged, excited and passionate, that’s who we look for. This is a fast moving, vibrant, young franchise system, it’s Mexican, upbeat, it’s a fiesta.”

Buying a franchise

In five years Mad Mex will be in at least three different countries, developing a rural Australian footprint (the first in New South Wales is already signed, South Australia and Northern Territory will happen this year).

Within the next three years there will be an increase to the store portfolio by 40 to 50 stores, through organic growth.

“As we grow, we become more attractive to landlords and franchisees.”

With an ambitious target in its sights, for everyone at Mad Mex going back to basics is important.

The key to success is to not over-complicate processes and to remember the essential purpose of the business, suggests Rebelo.

“We’re just selling burritos, don’t make a big deal of it. We’re here because there are stores and customers, that’s the only reason.”

 

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