College Essay Prompts Fast-Causal Mexican Chain To Celebrate Teen’s Graduation
By Tina Traster
QDOBA, the fast-casual Mexican chain, has raised a Rockland teen’s profile after learning the high school senior’s love for the restaurant inspired a college-entry essay.
Smart move for a large chain at a time when fast-food restaurants and big boxes are fighting for survival – and that started before the pandemic.
In April, deep in lockdown, Alex Tiso jumped on QDOBA’s website and sent an email telling the company how much he loved the chain and attached his college essay. In that essay, the North Rockland High School senior, compared his many personality traits to the complex mix-up of the custom Burrito Bowl he orders at the Shops at Nanuet location.
“There is another side of me that can be a “social butterfly” which makes me “the cheese” of the bowl,” the essay reads. “In my opinion, cheese makes everything better!”
“I sent the email at noon and I got a response at 3 pm from Keith Guilbault,” Alex says, referring to QDOBA’s CEO. “I had just gone to the website, to the bottom of the page, and sent a customer support email. I wasn’t sure anyone would even read it.”
But someone did. And on that same afternoon Alex wrote that email, he exchanged a series of emails with Guilbault. The CEO asked Alex to participate in a Zoom meeting on May 28th.
Tiso, who will attend University of Delaware this fall, made QDOBA his kitchen-away-from-his-kitchen during his high school years. It became a place to hang out, meet friends, and enjoy the Burrito Bowl. A fixture there, staff came to know him, and he them.
Planning on studying chemical engineering, Tiso says he also loves food.
“Food was one of the most important things while I was growing up,” he said. “We always ate big Saturday and Sunday dinners with my Italian grandmother. My mother always encouraged me to try different things. She’s very cultured.”
During the lockdown, Alex’s mom designated different nights to different cuisines.
“One night we had Mexican, another Italian – we got all around the whole world.”
But QDOBA represented a place for Alex to gather with friends, a couple of dates, sometimes by himself after swim meets.
“Teens like restaurants that are affordable and are places where they can gather,” he said.
And that, of course, is what the CEO of QDOBA understands.
On May 28th, Alex signed onto Zoom for a graduation surprise. The teen expected to be online with a few members of QDOBA’s marketing team but was greeted by the entire corporate body, including the CEO and executive chef Katy Valazquez.
“At first I signed on and I couldn’t get my audio to work,” Alex recalls. “But I saw all these people on the Zoom call and they were all clapping. Finally, I got the sound to work and I realized they were applauding for me.”
Alex says something very rare happened next: he was speechless.
The teen, who’s typically quite chatty, said “This is probably the only time in my life I’ve ever been without words. I was completely caught off guard and surprised.”
But there was more.
QDOBA, a savvy marketer, threw in another surprise: the company gifted him a free year of dining at QDOBA. And they said they are going to name a Burrito Bowl in his honor at the location near the University of Delaware.
Asked if a QDOBA location was part of his college search, Alex said having one near the University of Delaware campus was definitely put on the “pro” side of the pros-and-cons sheet. “I put it in all caps,” which technically is grammatically correct for the fast food chain.