The Moe’s Original BBQ tradition began in 1988 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where the restaurant’s namesake pit master, Moses Day, taught Alabama-native Mike Fernandez all about the slow art of barbecuing meat. In 2002, Fernandez and fellow University of Alabama alums Jeff Kennedy and Ben Gilbert brought their favorite Southern export with them to their winter escape in Colorado. When they officially started Moe’s Original BBQ, the humble operation consisted of a small charcoal grill outside of a double-wide trailer in Minturn, Colorado.
From there, the three launched a chain of barbecue restaurants with locations across the country, serving “Bama-style” pulled pork, smoked chicken, brisket, and ribs with classic Southern sides. (Insider tip: Try the Moe nachos with pulled pork, queso, and jalapeños.)
This year, the franchise celebrates its 15th anniversary with the recent opening of its 51st store in Semmes, Alabama. With 11 locations across Colorado—including outposts in Denver, Englewood, Lakewood, and Aurora—Moe’s has become as much of a Centennial state tradition as it is an Alabama one. 5280 spoke with Fernandez about the differences between barbecuing down-South versus in Colorado.
5280: How did you end up in Colorado?
Mike Fernandez: The thing about Colorado is that all Southern kids want to move out here once they graduate. For a lot of them, their parents drag them home after a couple years. But we [Kennedy, Gilbert, and myself] came and never wanted to leave. We started selling barbecue out of a trailer on the side of the road near Vail and from there it just took off. We opened the first restaurant near Vail Mountain in 2002. A lot of it spread through connections in the Widespread Panic community and through word of mouth.
How would you describe the style of Moe’s Original BBQ?
MF: We use two sauces and cook our meat over mild wood. We use oak down South and apple wood out West. We’re not going for the smokiest or the spiciest. We want to so something that everyone’s going to love. We’ve got simple recipes, done well. Our ultimate goal is to cook food with integrity.
How does barbecue culture differ in Colorado?
MF: In Alabama, you have mostly Memphis-style barbecue, with a thicker tomato sauce. Out here, there are a lot of people from Texas, so we do a lot more brisket. When we first came here that’s all there was—Texas-style or Kansas City-style. There was no Southern barbecue. We brought the pig.
Are there things that work here and not in Alabama (and vice versa)?
MF: One thing that sells more in Alabama, particularly in Birmingham, is our wings. Out here they still love beef. We do brisket every day. We also serve a lot more of the fresh vegetables like fresh corn back in Alabama—things that you don’t see as much of out West. But whatever region we’re in, we want the customers to help us out. We give our chefs and our franchisees a lot of freedom to adapt. We want things to be regional and reflect what the locals are loving.
Has the barbecue culture in Colorado changed since you’ve been here?
MF: Denver has been hit hard with barbecue recently. Now there’s young guys out here who are doing what we were doing 10 years ago. And they’re doing a good job with it. It’s a scene that’s definitely growing.