More and more eaters are headed to Moe's Southwest Grill for their burrito fix, according to an annual survey released this week by the Harris Poll. Chipotle had topped the fast-casual Mexican restaurant category for three consecutive years, but it fell hard in 2016. It wasn't just that Moe's took over as "Brand of the Year," Chipotle was also leapfrogged by Taco Bell, Qdoba Mexican Grill and Baja Fresh Mexican Grill, in that order.
Moe's has a smaller presence, with about 650 restaurants to Chipotle's 1,900. Chipotle has had a rough go of it lately, struggling to regain consumer confidence after dealing with multiple incidences of E. coli and norovirus at branches across the country. In April it suffered its first quarterly loss as a publicly traded company as sales dropped drastically.
Chipotle's competition has stepped up as well. Taco Bell rolled out a breakfast menu, for instance, and Moe's has become known for its wide selection of ingredients to customize an order, as well as special limited-time-only offerings.
The Harris Poll surveyed more than 97,000 U.S. consumers for their attitudes toward more than 3,800 brands. Moe's, which is owned by Focus Brands, the same company that runs Auntie Anne's and Cinnabon, opened 70 restaurants last year and that expansion has helped the brand compete with Chipotle, according to USA Today. The paper, citing an analytics firm, noted that 9.4 percent of the U.S. population visited a Chipotle last month, compared with 2.3 percent for Moe's.
But Moe's has looked to take advantage of Chipotle's struggles. When the larger chain had to close all of its stores for food-safety training on Feb. 8, Moe's took out a full-page ad in USA Today saying simply, "We’re Open – Especially on February 8."
Overall, Moe's has seen a 5 percent increase in foot traffic because of Chipotle's struggles, according to a Placed survey in April.