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Simply better: Keith Guilbault

Founded in 1995 in Denver, Colorado, QDOBA is a Mexican-inspired, fast casual restaurant built on flavor. And it’s not just the crave-worthy flavor of its juicy, grilled and perfectly spiced chicken thighs, impossibly delicious Impossible™ plant-based protein or its chef-crafted salsas either.

Keith Guilbault, CEO of Qdoba

It’s the flavor that marinates deep into every nook and cranny of the entire QDOBA experience, from the restaurants to the people. And its culture is, perhaps, the most flavorful of all. Composed of a delectable, high-performing and addictive blend of equal parts hospitality, positivity and performance, QDOBA’s culture is its secret sauce.

“We are a team dedicated to greatness,” says CEO Keith Guilbault. “Embedded in our culture is the tenacity of a startup, focusing on performance, kindness and positivity. Ultimately, that’s what drives the ability to grow an organization. Our culture is the unique differentiator of the brand.”

Because of these beliefs, QDOBA focuses less on talking about its culture and more on living it. “People spend a lot of time talking about culture and making brochures. Well, we don’t spend time on brochures, we spend time on those behaviors,” Keith says.

“My leadership team is approachable. We don’t have offices; instead, we’re out with everyone. This fosters collaboration, quick decision-making and a true sense of being one team, regardless of title. It’s something unique to us, and I believe our culture has directly related to a very low turnover.”

We have great food, so this is an opportunity to take a brand that is strong at its core and transform it into something that is really special.

Pre-COVID-19, QDOBA’s voluntary turnover was only 4%
in 18 months, which is unheard of in the industry. Keith credits it to the culture-intensive hiring process that places an emphasis on positivity right from the beginning.

“I do the final interview, and I interview exclusively for cultural fit,” he says. “Then, I meet with all the corporate employees in their first three weeks and get to know them. I always ask them if working here is as good as the story we sold them during the hiring process. 100% of them have said it’s even better.”

How is it better? Well, the answer, according to Keith, is pretty simple. “Because we hire for culture, everyone has a natural disposition for hospitality. We say hello in the halls, we are quick to introduce ourselves to new faces. It’s the simple things, but it makes a huge difference. It’s just the people are happy to be at the company. They feel like they belong to something special.”

Keith Guilbault, CEO of Qdoba_2

The same rings true for its business partnerships. Roughly two years ago, QDOBA was owned by Jack in the Box. When it separated, the fast-casual restaurant brand had to carve out its supply chain, turning to end-to-end supply chain data management company ArrowStream. Now, it has a network of business partnerships built on its core values.

“The cultural element is embedded into everything we do and every behavior we have. Everything we do in a relationship comes back to integrity. So when we brought in the new team, they focused on existing relationships as well as potential new ones. We approach all our relationships in a solutions-oriented manner because there’s never a situation where we want to get into a relationship that is a win–lose scenario with any of our suppliers.”

Currently, QDOBA has approximately 730 restaurants across the US and Canada. Its growth has been “rapid and consistent” for the past 25 years. According to Keith, the only hiccups that have occurred were right before he joined the company and during its restructuring period when breaking away from Jack in the Box. It’s part of what made taking on the role as the company’s CEO so desirable.

“I joined QDOBA in May of 2016 after leaving Jack in the Box as Chief Marketing Officer,” he says. “As I was considering moving over to QDOBA, the big decision-maker for me was its high-quality, freshly prepared and on-trend food. On top of that, I saw an opportunity to strengthen the brand. With my experience, I could come in and build out a new perspective, a new team, a new culture and get the company to start experiencing the growth I knew it was capable of.”

And that’s exactly what he’s been hard at work doing. Before the pandemic hit, QDOBA was an industry leader in terms of same-store sales growth. “The strategic plan my team and I put together was translating to more consumers coming in our doors and a higher level frequency of those consumers,” Keith explains.

“I believe the growth will continue to come twofold – through organic growth of existing restaurants and new unit growth.” While he sees the company growing at an accelerated rate for years to come, Keith says that the brand is not complacent with past success and continues to innovate across key areas of the business.

“We’ve done a lot of work, but there’s still more to do,” he says. “Starting with marketing, we’re leaning into our brand position of flavor, highlighting our fresh, flavorful food, as well as our flavorful attitude. We’re also looking to get even smarter with this messaging in the digital space, uniquely targeting our loyal customers with the appropriate message to drive a higher level of frequency.”

QDOBA also has a new executive chef who is working to take its flavor profile to the next level. “It’s part of a major effort we have underway to ensure the food at our restaurants is differentiated from our competitors,” Keith explains.

“We believe there is an opportunity for us to have a more flavorful and unique offering, so we can position our ingredients and our offerings in a way that can’t be replicated anywhere else.” Right now, QDOBA is the second largest fast-casual Mexican brand in the US, and Keith believes QDOBA can be an industry leader in both quality and sales growth.

“We have great food, so this is an opportunity to take a brand that is strong at its core and transform it into something that is really special and unique in the industry.”

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