Why Moe's Southwest Grill declared a queso war on Chipotle

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Moe's called out Chipotle as "queso impersonators" when the chain tested its cheese with consumers.

Moe’s Southwest Grill has ruled the queso roost for 17 years, with its "famous rich ribbons of liquid gold." So when Chipotle said it was testing queso with consumers to determine if it would become a permanent menu item, Moe’s ignited a war of cheese.

The turf war started on July 10, when Chipotle unveiled its only public-facing test kitchen in the Big Apple, called Chipotle Next Kitchen. That day, Chipotle announced its plans for queso, which was baffling for some, as the chain had previously said the cheese would not appear on the menu anytime soon.

Upon seeing Chipotle’s news, Moe’s Southwest Grill quickly entered the conversation, said the chain’s president, Bruce Schroder. Moe’s internal comms team collaborated with PR AOR Allison+Partners to come up with the strategy.

"We recognized an opportunity to showcase what makes us different and affirm our leadership position in our category," said Schroder. "Our strategy was to jump into the current news cycle with something that would appeal to people’s sense of humor, align with the Moe’s voice, and remind consumers who the original queso masters are."

Moe’s put out a statement on June 12, less than 48 hours after Chipotle’s announcement.

The release warned consumers about "multiple alleged ‘queso’ dishes posing as cheesy authentic goodness." People should be wary, the release said, of "queso impersonators [who] are claiming to serve the perfection that is smooth and delectable queso, attempting to fool consumers across the nation."

Moe’s encouraged consumers who were "duped by queso copycats" to snap a photo or share feedback by reporting it directly to @Moes_HQ using #QuesoImposters. It then directed consumers to the Moe’s Bryant Park location, nearby the Chipotle test kitchen, to get a free cup of queso with any purchase on July 13.

It also offered free questo to people who downloaded Moe’s Rockin’ Rewards app.
"We never referred to Chipotle by name; we just said there was an imposter on the loose," noted Allison+Partners chief creative officer Lisa Rosenberg.

The release was pushed out over the wire with aggressive and targeted pitching to outlets that had covered Chipotle’s announcement.

"Queso was also dropped to high-profile media who had taste tested Chipotle’s queso, so they had easy access to Moe’s authentic queso and were able to compare the two," added Rosenberg.

On Moe’s social channels, the brand posted "queso glamour shots" showing off Instagram-able cheese pulls, and engaged with consumers who were also clapping back at the imposter queso, said Schroder.

Timing was the biggest challenge Moe’s faced in the campaign. "Knowing the news was timely and we had to get the word out, we worked very quickly with the brand to pull the strategy and materials together, and have it all approved through all the proper channels, ensuring we were able to tell this story while media and consumers were still talking about it," said Schroder.

Moe’s effort was covered by USA Today, CNBC, The Daily Meal, Thrillist, Food & Wine, and Delish.

Moe’s history of throwing shade at Chipotle
Last February, when Chipotle closed its doors for a one-day food-safety meeting with employees, Moe's ran a full-page ad in USA Today reminding customers it was open on that day.

Chipotle PR director Chris Arnold said the burrito chain has not responded to Moe’s efforts.

Arnold did tell USA Today, however, that he’s "not sure what ‘imposter queso’ is, but if it’s queso made with only real, whole ingredients, we’ll take it."