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Austin-born barbecue chain fires up big plans for growth with new owners

Austin-born barbecue chain fires up big plans for growth with new owners

You know that old saying: Where there’s smoke, there’s … barbecue. This is Texas, after all. And one barbecue chain that got its start in the Austin area is cooking up some serious growth plans thanks to a deal that’s adding lots of fuel to the fire.

Smokey Mo’s Texas BBQ, the neighborhood barbecue brand launched in 2000 in Cedar Park by pitmaster Morris Melchor and his wife, Lisa, has just been purchased by Austin-based private equity firm Switchback Capital.

The purchase price wasn’t shared, however a Smokey Mo’s company rep confirms that the acquisition will stoke plenty of growth for the brand, with Switchback planning to expand Smokey Mo’s from its current 16 locations to more corporate and franchised locations across Texas communities, with new restaurants coming online starting later this year.

The barbecue chain currently has two locations in Austin; two in Cedar Park; one each in Georgetown, Leander, Liberty Hill, and Round Rock; four locations in San Antonio; one each in Boerne, New Braunfels, and Spring Branch; and one location in Conroe.

The Smokey Mo’s growth plan includes creating more franchise opportunities for new operators in the coming months, as well as Smokey Mo’s undergoing a company rebrand and a complete remodeling of its store design to add a more modern flair.

Though specific new locations weren’t disclosed, Craig Haley, the president of Smokey Mo’s, says new restaurants are already in the works.

“Regarding corporate store growth, we will be opening multiple units this year and next year in the Austin market. Leases have been signed and construction has started. New store openings will begin in the third quarter of 2022,” Haley tells CultureMap. “We are very excited to grow the franchise side of the business as well. For the last 12 months, we’ve been creating best-in-class franchising processes and our current franchisees are chomping at the bit to expand their Smokey Mo’s portfolio of stores.”

The acquisition comes shortly after Smokey Mo’s brought on Haley and other new leadership, with the goal of directing the expansion and rebranding. In October, it was announced that Haley would assume the role of president for Smokey Mo’s and Gini Quiroz would become the vice president of human resources.

Haley and Quiroz previously worked together at K&N Management, which until early 2021 owned and operated all four Austin-area locations of Mighty Fine Burgers, Fries & Shakes, as well as five Rudy’s Bar-B-Q franchises. Haley and Quiroz were involved in growing those brands prior to K&N selling them off.

“As we enter this highly anticipated phase of Smokey Mo’s, we want to move quickly, but at the speed of ‘right,’ to maintain our guest experience and make it the absolute best it can be,” Haley told Nation’s Restaurant News in October. “Our guests love Smokey Mo’s because of its quality ingredients, affordable pricing, and the fact our meat is freshly smoked each day, and our vision is to take this quality to the next level to become the best neighborhood barbeque in Texas.”

While that’s a bold goal for a state filled with beloved barbecue joints, it’s not entirely implausible. Smokey Mo’s is known for Texas-style barbecue favorites, like ribs, link sausage, and its low-and-slow-cooked brisket — which is smoked in-house for 10 to 14 hours every day and is doused in a “proprietary” barbecue rub — as well as its home-style sides.

It’s those Texas-comfort-food barbecue staples, combined with its down-to-earth neighborhood charm that, in part, appealed to Switchback, which adds Smokey Mo’s to its portfolio as the firm’s first formal investment. The equity firm focuses primarily on Central Texas businesses that are cash-flow positive and offer growth prospects, making Smokey Mo’s a good pick for the company, according to a release.

“There is clear promise for broad, rapid expansion, as well as modernizing our existing Smokey Mo’s locations. Giving our guests the best experience possible is a high priority for us,” says Todd Caven, principal of Switchback Capital. “Our team is enthusiastic about bringing the best neighborhood barbecue in Texas, smoked in-house, to new markets in the near future.”

John Egan contributed to this story.