Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes is renewing its emphasis on operations and some possible new menu items as co-founder Rich Hicks again takes the helm of the 54-unit concept.

Hicks assumed the role of interim chief executive and president of the Plano, Texas-based better-burger chain last week, while the company seeks a replacement for Bill Spae, who had held that position since January.

In a letter to franchisees, Hicks said he and Todd Istre, with whom he co-founded the brand in 2007, had heard from franchisees “about the importance of improving operations.”

“I don’t have to tell any of you how competitive our better-burger space is and the importance of hiring and training the best operators we can find,” Hicks told franchisees. “Having been in restaurant operations for 27 years, I know that it’s our people that make the difference.”

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Hicks discussed the management changes and plans for the brand with Nation’s Restaurant News.

How do you feel about returning to lead the company?

Bill Spae and I mutually agreed that it would be in the best interest of the brand for me to get back involved at a very high level or a very deep level. It was amicable. I’ve known Bill for many years. He’s done some great things for Mooyah. But it’s my baby as the co-founder and owner of the brand. I felt like my involvement back into the business was important.

What original Mooyah characteristics do you hope to focus on?

We’re going to focus on the fundamentals of the better-burger space and providing the very best guest experience. Our main point of differentiation is we bake our buns in house, and our competition doesn’t do that. We’re going to leverage that.

What other changes are planned?

We are going to introduce a new presentation that has been in test about 90 days, where we don’t wrap the burgers in foil and we don’t put them in a bag. We actually present them on a tray. The guests are really enjoying that.

Where do you see your focus headed?

Overall, we’re going to get focused on operations and the fundamentals of providing the guest with a memorable experience. It’s top-line focused now. There has been some work around purchasing initiatives. We will continue to see strides there to the tune of 1 to 2 percent, which we’re excited about, but we have to lift the top line.

Where are the sales pressures coming from?

It’s fiercely competitive and continues to be. We have to out-operate the competition. You can’t do that without hiring, training and retaining the best people in the business, so that’s part of our focus.

How about the menu, such as your fresh-cut fries?

We’re focused on the fry. That’s a big item for us. We are looking and testing at a larger single patty versus the single and the double. We think the consumer would prefer a single patty, though we still offer the double. We are looking into a possible salad test, so we have a couple of restaurants that are playing around with that. But that’s in the very early stages.

What has been the biggest change in customers since founding Mooyah in 2007?

In the fast-casual space, I don’t see there being a great deal of change. They are still looking for a better food and service experience, and they don’t mind paying for. I’ve been in fast casual since the early Tin Star days, nearly 13 to 14 years. It’s high-quality food done right with great service.

If you do all those things, I think the palate hasn’t changed and the expectations have probably increased because of the level of competition. If you don’t take care of them, your neighbors will. There might be a slight healthy halo. We do see an increase in our healthier items: i.e., turkey burgers and sweet potato fries. Outside of that, it’s been pretty consistent in what the guest is looking for.

Are service expectations in fast casual getting higher?

Undoubtedly. And that comes with competition. That’s in my opinion our greatest challenge. We need to get better operationally. That’s one of the reason I promoted Michael Mabry [former head of franchise sales] to the VP of ops job. I needed a real intensity to improve operations. … He has a relationship with franchisees. This business is built on relationships.

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