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    Qdoba Aims to Keep Healthy Initiatives at its Core

    By Rick Zambrano

    Qdoba Aims to Keep Healthy Initiatives at its Core - Kandessa Media

    Wheat tortillas. Street Tacos. Lean Pork. These are fighting words for Ted Stoner, director of Strategic Product Development for Qdoba Mexican Grill, a chain of 550 restaurants spanning from California to Massachusetts. Stoner is charged with Qdoba's culinary efforts to maintain a healthy backbone to the Denver-based concept's menu rollouts.

    Not surprisingly, the word "nutrition" is on the list of top ten keywords used by Web visitors accessing Qdoba Mexican Grill's site, according to, a website information and analytics company.

    The National Restaurant Association's (NRA) recent launch of the Kids LiveWell program spotlighted a restaurant industry's growing participation in offering healthy choices to kids and parents. The NRA's promotion of the program gained the support of 15,000 restaurants across the country. Its support for federal reforms to menu calorie posting that are both intelligent and balanced is in alignment with consumers' desire for a healthier lifestyle.

    Advocacy groups say consumers want more transparency in the choices they make at limited- and full-service eateries.

    In early July, Qdoba rolled out an expanded wheat tortilla test in Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon, which originally debuted in limited format in Denver last year.  The test offers guests at the 26 stores in both cities a more healthful option when selecting Qdoba's burritos and quesadillas.

    "We've got all the nutritionals and have the texture and flavor in line," says Stoner. He says his team worked diligently to find a wheat tortilla that had the right flavor profile, moisture balance, and the right nutritional composition.  "For the quesadillas, it had to have the right crispness. We definitely think we picked the right [wheat] tortilla," says Stoner.

    Established nutrition authorities, like the Mayo Clinic, continue to promote wheat and whole grains as a good source of nutrients, fiber, and an overall diet that is naturally lower in fat. Despite the rising recent popularity of gluten-free diets, there is growing evidence that avoiding wheat may only be healthy for those with celiac disease.

    In March, Stoner introduced Street Tacos to the system. He says the tacos, featuring lean protein and lower sodium, were another healthy option for guests, who have been known to be very diligent about monitoring calories and fat on the menu. Street Tacos are a result of his annual travels to Mexico and experience with street fare.

    "The Nutritional Calculator is the hot spot right after our locations page."

    Ted Stoner, Qdoba Mexican Grill.

    Our own article this year on menu trends not to be missed, and recent commentaries at the NRA’s Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, indicate consumers are looking for cooking styles that are closer to 'their roots,' and prefer authentic global cuisine.

    Qdoba appears to have been on queue for its Mexican-style street fare.  Staying ahead of the curve in Mexican-style cuisine is no easy task. In the East, Qdoba competes with the Chipotle, Baja Fresh, Boloco and Taqueria del Sol chains, to name just a few. The space is competitive, and Chipotle's own efforts via its "food with integrity" program emphasizes local sourcing, green initiatives and the humane treatment of livestock.

    In 2005, Qdoba launched its online Nutritional Calculator. In addition to providing customers with information on various menu options, Qdoba's calculator drills down to the ingredient and topping level. "The Nutritional Calculator is the hotspot right after our locations page,” notes Stoner. “It literally gets millions of hits each year."

    Qdoba recently began selling retail salsas for at-home consumption to its guests. Salsa Verde and Salsa Roja are now available in the metro-Denver, Colorado Springs, Boulder, and Dillon areas as part of the test. The salsas are made from pureed vegetables, and have no additional fat or sodium additives.

    Stoner admits that he's had manufacturer reps approach him to bring the concept's retail products to shelves, but he wants to be cautious.

    The success of chains like Jamba Juice, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, and TGI Friday's, attracts operators that want to expand their brand presence and fatten profits. But, retail licensing isn't for every brand, as evidenced by recent panel discussions at the NRA Show 2011, and the growing development of specific methodologies to strategize licensing for brands that have sufficient recognition, velocity and commitment to do so.

    "Let's not run after retail opportunities...we're all about getting our product right," says Stoner. “If and when we do go down that path, we'll make sure we have the quality that our guests love."

    Leading Qdoba's kid's menu are naked burritos (burritos sans tortillas), 100 percent vegetarian beans, and applesauce. The Craft 2™ menu offers kids and adults the option to pair two select items, usually lower in calorie and portion, including some taco salads, soups and tacos, to create a reduced calorie and fat meal.

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    Photo: courtesy of GroundFloor Media

    Copyright: Kandessa Media. All rights reserved.

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    This story appears in:  Fast Casual