Watch out Chipotle, the Competition in the Fresh Mex Segment is Heatin’ up

There are been several recent developments in the “fresh mex” sector of fact casual– including Chipotle’s food safety crisis, Rubio’s expansion to the east coast and Moe’s Southwest Grill being named the Mexican fast casual “brand of the year” in the Harris Poll.

Before November of last year, Chipotle was always leading the pack. Fast forward to today, the brand that boasts “food with integrity” is still struggling to return to where it was before the food safety media frenzy caused sales to slump.

With that in mind, other “fresh mex” restaurants now have a competitive advantage and are gaining momentum in the market.

Through Foodable Labs and data pulled from the Restaurant Social Media Index (RSMI,) a proprietary system of our sister company DigitalCoCo– we track over 151 million US social restaurant consumers across 17 social platforms. With over 21k restaurant brands indexed, Foodable has its pulse on what consumers really think about these brands.  

To see what “fresh mex” restaurants consumers are gravitating to we focused primarily on the Sentiment category. The multi-variant sentiment is based on a variety of terms and locations relative to food, service, and overall Brand Experience, providing a much more accurate consumer sentiment score than any other system in the market. The score is based on a hundred-point scale. To put it simply, we have determined which “fresh mex” brands consumers loved the most in the second quarter of 2016.

Top Ten Fresh Mex Fast Casual Brands

Based on social consumer sentiment data from the Restaurant Social Media Index.

1. Rubio’s Coastal Grill | Sentiment Score: 89.02

This west coast brand is officially expanding to the east coast with 8 new stores to be opened in the fall of this year. With 200 stores currently operating in California, Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Nevada, the brand has distinguished itself from other brands with the focus on seafood centered dishes. In 1983, Rubio’s started as a quick-serve restaurant and became known for its fish tacos. The fish tacos are still the brand’s claim to fame, but the brand eventually morphed into fast casual before the segment label existed.

So why has the coastal grill chain been successful. “A number of factors have contributed to the growth of the company over the past 33 years. Our menu of grilled seafood with globally inspired, unique recipes and quality ingredients is on-trend for consumers who are looking for “better for you” fast casual options with that don’t compromise taste. Consumers also want to know what they can do to make an impact on the world and often take this into account when making purchasing decisions,” said Marc Simon, Rubio’s CEO.

The brand is certainly on the move, while creating a positive social buzz with consumers with a major point lead ahead of all the other fresh Mexican concepts.

2. Chipotle | Sentiment Score:  77.52

Chipotle may be still ranked at no. 2, but the chain’s score has taken a major hit. To put things in prospective, Chipotle’s sentiment score for the 2nd quarter of 2015 was a high 95.11. Following the food safety crisis in the first quarter of this year, the chain’s score dropped almost 20 whole points to 76.21. The second quarter score has increased ever so slightly, but like we said, the brand has some major work to do to return to the top.

In this category, Chipotle still dominates with over 2,000 store locations and award-winning content marketing. Its latest short film, “A Love Story” released by the brand on July 5 has almost 5 million views on YouTube.

The brand has also launched an intense recovery plan to win back its customers. The latest promotion is an accelerated rewards program for the summer where customers can quickly earn rewards with only a few visits per month. All the while, Chipotle continues to reaffirm to customers, along with the media and its investors that they are escalating their food safety standards to be more advanced than any other restaurant.

3. Freebirds World Burrito | Sentiment Score: 73.54

This chicken focused Mexican chain has almost a 100 stores in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Kansas, Missouri, California and Utah. The concept was started in 1987 in California, but it has really taken off with the Texas college crowd.

Freebirds’ mission is “to feed the belly and the soul continues to this very day. With continued growth on the horizon, our dedication to providing quality experiences at mealtime and in between remains standard.” The brand focuses on the quality of the food with locally sourced ingredients, fresh tortillas and superior cuts of meats.

The chain just launched its Freebirds mobile app this summer where customers can earn rewards by getting 1 point for every $1 they spend. The brand enticed customers to download the app by offering a free Freebird sized Burrito with a purchase of a 24 oz drink.

The fast casual continues to cater to the millennial market with its FreeBirds Street Kitchen, a food truck that visits events like the 2016 Lone Star Jam in Austin and CMA Music Festival in Nashville. Using social media and the hashtag #FBStreetKitchen, the brand keeps its following updated about the mobile eatery’s whereabouts.

So there you have it– the most loved “fresh mex” fast casual restaurants for the second quarter of the year.

Some notable mentions include Tijuana Flats and Qdoba Mexican Eats which round out the top five. Interestingly enough, Moe’s Southwest Grill lands at no. 8 with a score of 61.36. Moe’s received a lot of press for being named the “brand of the year” in the Mexican fast casual category of the Harris Poll, beating out Chipotle after three years as no. 1. But, our data pulled from social doesn’t correspond with that result.

Check out the rest of the ranking above.