Tortilla – Transforming the Fast-Casual Dining Sector

Thursday, December 1, 2016

While Brandon Stephens was halfway through studying for on a MBA at the London Business School he was asked to write a business proposal, and like most good plans, it began in the pub…

Brandon Stephens, founder of Tortilla

Now Californian Brandon heads up of one of the UK’s most successful fast-casual dining chains. With over 25 branches and 250+ staff, Tortilla rolls out over two million burritos a year.

Brandon shares his coveted business advice with us and offers us a glimpse into his dream dinner party guest list.

Who/what inspired you to set up Tortilla?

I was in the pub having some drinks with a buddy discussing projects for our final thesis at London Business School and we were talking about the fast-casual dining sector. I grew up eating burritos in San Francisco, and I worked out that with the exchange rate, I was paying around $20 for a burrito – which is crazy. Tortilla was born.

How do your locations influence your business?

We don’t pretend that we’re a destination restaurant so we rely on catchment area and traffic – that’s why the shopping centre sites (Bluewater and Stratford) are so successful.

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

We focus on providing a good quality product, everything is made in-house, none of our toppings are outsourced, and all our meat is higher welfare.

A lot of our competition focus on small units with a rudimentary design whereas we really try to give our customers an experience.  We invest a lot into having a great architecture and creating a unique environment.

How do you react to the changing marketplace?

We have very competitive price points so no one is pricing us out.

We’ve mainly chosen locations where we don’t have any direct competition, except for Islington, Leadenhall Market Oxford Circus, so we go after prime locations in high footfall areas.

There is a lot of choice in the fast-casual dining sector and we help to differentiate our offering with design – the British public, especially Londoners, don’t have time for the “same old same old” architecture of high-street chains, they want to see individuality in their eating out experience.

What would you say is the biggest challenge facing foodservice businesses like yourselves today? How did you manage to survive the recession?

Property! There are very few properties which are in prime locations, have high footfall and with the right square footage. So finding and securing them is extremely difficult!

As a business, what are you doing to overcome this challenge?

We’ve hired an extremely experienced property expert to advise us. We’ve also created a portfolio of all our sites to show to landlords when we bid for new locations to showcase the quality and design of our stores, which has been very effective. And obviously the more stores you have the more credible your business is – the better “covenant” you have – which gives landlords comfort that you’ll pay your rent on-time.

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

There were two sites which we passed up which two of our competitors took. They have been very successful and whenever those sites come up in conversation the whole team just sighs.

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

It’s a marathon not a sprint. I’m a sprinter, I like to get things done but my idea for Tortilla started at business school and the first store opened in 2007, so it’s been a long progress and you have to be prepared for that.

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

Get experience in the restaurant trade and round out your skill set. If you have business skills and want to open a restaurant, work in a restaurant. Not only do you have to provide a great product – you have to know how to recruit, structure the organisation, manage employees and work the figures.

What’s the best thing about your job?

I get to eat burritos every day! Plus I work with a group of people who I absolutely cherish. I love seeing my colleagues every day.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

I’ll continue to be in the ‘start up’ business, but whether it’s the restaurant industry, I don’t know.

What’s your signature dish?

Spaghetti bolognaise – super spicy with lots of extras thrown in like spinach, mushrooms, peppers…it’s delicious!

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

Sushi.

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

A comfort food tapas; sushi, crepes and mac and cheese.

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

I’m not a religious guy, but you’ve got to have Jesus at the table. And then David Cameron, Barack Obama, Heston Blumenthal (he could cook) and Robin Williams to lighten things up.

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

Savoury crepes, burritos and sushi

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

My popcorn maker.