Keith Guilbault, CEO of Qdoba Mexican Eats, at the company’s former Kearny Mesa headquarters.

Keith Guilbault, CEO of Qdoba Mexican Eats, at the company’s former Kearny Mesa headquarters. Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle.

— Qdoba Mexican Eats has no plans to leave San Diego.

Post Jack-in-the-Box selling the fast casual brand to New York-based private equity fund Apollo Global Management Group for $305 million late last year, Qdoba likes the worker pool here and may want to open some outlets in the city. So, the company, which moved its headquarters from Denver to San Diego about 18 months ago, has decided to stay.

“We have found a great talent pool here in San Diego across all functions, specifically talent that is technically strong and also extremely energetic and with a positive spirit,” said CEO Keith Guilbault. “That is important to all of us at Qdoba: We want energetic, positive people on our team. We believe that creates a unique and different work environment where employees look forward to coming to work and they are better problem solvers and overall better teammates with one another.”

Although not in the immediate plans, Guilbault says Qdoba hopes to open some restaurants locally so that “people in S.D. can experience the fresh-made food as well.”

Building Support Team

First on the list of the company’s priorities is filling 100 corporate positions at its Kearny Mesa headquarters, Guilbault said.

“Right now, our real focus is in building the rest of the support team,” said Guilbault, who spent 12 years at Jack in the Box — where he held various positions including senior vice president and chief marketing officer — before moving to Qdoba as chief operating officer two years ago, followed by a run as president and now CEO. “Up until when Apollo bought it, we were within the Jack in the Box umbrella. So, many support functions were handled by a shared service across both brands. Now that we are our own company, we need those positions filled.”

So far, Qdoba has about 50 corporate employees in a number of posts including training, operations and marketing, to list a few, but, it will be looking to fill other positions that range from specialists to executive management. The plan is to have all 100 new jobs filled in the next six months.

Guilbault credits his experience at Jack in the Box with instilling in him the importance of having the right people in his corner. “It starts with the right team and the right work culture,” he said. “That is something I definitely learned at Jack. And, so far, I have to say, I have a great team that is real, authentic, and full of approachable leaders.”

Ali Sheppard, a New York-based restaurateur who’s worked with eateries like Chipotle and Tres Carnes, agrees with this philosophy.

“The most important part of any business is the people,” he said. “To continue to grow sustainably, you must build a culture of empowered high performers who truly understand a commitment to the mission. Servant leadership must be demonstrated so those who follow you understand your commitment to the team and overall organization.”

Culinary Beliefs

Sheppard also adds that he believes the path toward success for Qdoba will be through remaining authentic and grounded in its culinary beliefs. “For Qdoba to continue to grow its brand and business, it needs to remember its foundation,” he said. “The primary focus of the business should not be sales and numbers but flavor without compromise. The mission of changing the perception of popular food culture, the idea that ‘fast’ shouldn’t mean not fresh. Instead, by utilizing high quality ingredients with a commitment to better business practices, this will lead to sales and growth naturally.”

As for Apollo’s role, Guilbault says the company is working very closely with Qdoba, which is the second-largest fast-casual Mexican food brand in the United States, to make sure the brand continues to grow, although he wouldn’t divulge specifics. (The largest fast-casual Mexican food chain is the Tex-Mex Moe’s Southwest Grill, according to the annual EquiTrend Study from Harris Poll.)

“I can say we have a very defined, strategic plan we co-developed with Apollo to grow the business,” he said. “They are helping us by providing guidance, strategy and the resources we need to run and grow our business.”

Under the wings of Jack in the Box, which bought Qdoba in 2003, the fast-casual chain grew from 17 locations in 16 states with $65 million in sales to more than 700 restaurants in 47 states and Canada, with sales of more than $820 million in the 2017 fiscal year.

A New Combo?

And, although Apollo’s restaurant and hospitality businesses include Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurants, there was no available information on whether Qdoba would collaborate with the chain, as of press time, despite reports that the two restaurants could be combined. Bloomberg reported last May that Apollo was in talks with investment firm Ares Management LP to sell the kids’ arcade and pizza chain. Representatives from Apollo declined to comment.

As far as potential apprehensions about Qdoba’s success, with sales falling 1.4 percent in the 2017 fiscal year reportedly due to a 50 percent rise in avocado prices, Guilbault says he isn’t concerned.

Previously, “It was a story about two very different brands underneath one umbrella: One was a very franchise business and one that is more heavily company-operated,” he said. “But, we are thrilled to be on our own with great leadership roles. I love the Qdoba brand — it has a great history and legacy. Qdoba makes fresh food in the restaurant every single day, and it has a history of caring about employees. This is something I take very seriously. Every day I walk into the office, I know it is my responsibility to live up to that heritage.”