Bringing Tapas Restaurants to the UK

La Tasca first opened in Manchester in 1993 and hasn’t looked back since. The tapas restaurant has now brought the taste and passion of Spanish cuisine to over 40 restaurants across the UK and is continuing to spread the Spanish fever across the pond, with five restaurants now open in the USA.

La Tasca Chief Executive Simon Wilkinson in dark shirt

We got the chance to talk to Simon Wilkinson, who became Chief Executive of La Tasca in 2011. He tells us his best kept industry secrets as well as his own signature dish!

Who/what inspired you to get into the hospitality industry?

There was no one person in particular that inspired me but from a young age whenever we stayed in hotels I always wanted to work in them. Then, when I was a teenager my parents owned a pub restaurant and so my love of the hospitality industry continued to develop from there.

How do your locations influence your business

The locations of our restaurants is a massive influencer because these days society is all about convenience. We always keep this in mind and each of our restaurants is positioned where there is high foot fold, such as shopping centres and high streets.

Region wise, we have found that London is the most anti-brand city in the UK and customers look for one-off restaurants. So, in each of our five capital branches we try to do something different; as a brand you’ve always got to think national but act for the local market. For example, in St Christopher’s Place we have installed a downstairs bodegas which serves people the finest Spanish ham and wine.

What is your unique selling point? What makes your brand stand out in such a competitive market?

We want to make people feel like they are on a Spanish holiday which could mean different things to different people. Some may like to have a relaxed evening with fine wine and tapas whilst others would look for sangria and a party. We try to cater for every customer, providing a unique Spanish experience for everyone depending on the time of day.

How do you react to the changing marketplace?

I think as a brand we are quite innovative and adapt to the changing marketplace quickly with new ways of enticing customers. Three years ago we were the first company to launch a loyalty card and more recently we have developed a market leading guest feedback programme so we can constantly improve.

We are still only a relatively small company and so we can’t react to every new development in technology, however, we can do things to ensure our customers have the best experience possible.

What would you say is the biggest challenge facing foodservice businesses like yourselves today?

I think there are three main things:

  1. The rising cost of rent in an increasingly competitive property market.
  2. Attracting young and talented people into the industry – there’s not enough education about the fantastic career opportunities the hospitality industry can provide.
  3. VAT - there is a disproportionate VAT applicable to restaurants compared with supermarkets and takeaway outlets which makes it difficult for competitive pricing.

As a business, what are you doing to overcome these challenges?

Firstly, we look for locations other competitors might not consider and then try to get in early. At the moment there are so many Italian restaurants or burger places, I think we have a slight competitive edge with landlords as we can offer the diversity that customers want.

Secondly, more needs to be done on a national scale to raise awareness about the career options on offer for young people in hospitality. There really is no other industry like it – you can work your way up quickly, it’s very diverse and it’s one of the rare jobs that you can travel anywhere in the world with. To help get young people more engaged with the industry we have already partnered with colleges, such as Blackpool, to provide on-site training in some of our restaurants for students studying for NVQS. We were also affiliates for the 2014 Nestlé Toque d’Or competition to promote and develop the brilliant young talent we have here in Britain.

Unfortunately, we can’t do that much about the VAT. 

What is the biggest business mistake you’ve made and what key learning did you take from it to make your business better?

Three years ago, when I first started in my current role we were given a pot of money to invest in the brand but I think we spent it too quickly.

I learnt that you need to first take the time to fix the brand. You need to start with the in-house stuff – the quality of food, the quality of service and investing time and training into the people that are already part of the business before you pump money into the development and refurbishment of sites.

What is the best piece of business advice you’ve ever been given?

There have been two good pieces of advice which spring to mind:

Trust your gut instinct because 9 times out of 10 it’s always right and, you get nowhere unless you work hard.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to other chefs/entrepreneurs looking to succeed in the industry?

Only take a job, or role, if you like the person you will be reporting to. This is a people industry and if you don’t like the person you are working for you won’t enjoy your job (a worrying thing when we work for most of our lives!) It’s not necessarily about the money or job title, it’s about whether it will be a fun working environment and I believe that if you enjoy your work then you will naturally progress in your career.

What’s the best thing about your job?

Seeing the business prosper and watching people develop and get promoted internally. I think the two go hand-in-hand because when there are good results someone has usually done a good job and deserves recognition for it.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

Still in the hospitality industry, hopefully as a non-executive director of a few different companies.

What’s your signature dish?

Spicy duck legs in a plum and chorizo sauce.

When you get the chance, where do you enjoy eating out?

At local pubs and an Indian goes down nicely.

What would be your dream meal? (starter, main and dessert)

Lobster risotto to start, followed by fillet steak with spinach and chips. Dessert would have to be Tiramisu.

Which five people would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Michael McIntyre because he makes me laugh, Winston Churchill so I could understand what made him such a great leader, Keith Moon from The Who, Sir Ian McGeechan as I’m a bit of a rugby fan and Princess Diana to find out what really happened.

What are the three food items you’d take to a desert island…?

Avocado, dark chocolate and roast lamb.

What’s the one piece of kitchen equipment you couldn’t live without?

My wok because it can cook anything.