Lunch with... Ben Fordham, founder of Benito's Hat

16/04/2015 - 12:36
With the popularity of Mexican food reaching new heights of success, Lunch Business speaks to Ben Fordham, founder of Benito’s Hat, to find out how his business is capitalising on this trend.

What is your background?
I worked in the City as a lawyer for 3½ years and from the moment I started, I had an eye on this. A key bit of my background is that I lived in Texas for a year as part of my law degree, where I saw lots of wonderful Mexican food. TexMex is rather a dirty word in the UK but in Texas there was everything from fast casual restaurants to really high end, experimental Mexican food.

How involved is the business in social media?
Our Twitter following is pretty good at 8,000; Facebook is about half that and Instagram is very low. It’s something I’ve always done but increasingly I don’t give it the attention it needs. Twitter is most useful and successful where they really get under the skin of the business, and I’ve hired our first marketing manager so we could hand it over to someone who was part of Benito’s Hat, who could give a bit of time to it. I think we’ve been good but patchy but I’m confident that we will be a bit less patchy and still retain the good stuff.

What are your growth plans for this year?
In our 6½ years, we have opened 6½ restaurants and that pattern of one a year has been fine. Last year we took on some private equity money, so for the first time we went out of our circle of friends and family, with a target of opening four or five a year, so this is a big year for us, with three on the books, one in production and three more in legals. Also last year, we strengthened the central team and took on a CEO, a marketing manager, a training mgr and an operations manager.

We are opening our first  kiosk at the Bishopsgate entrance to Liverpool Street Station at the beginning of March. We launch in Bromley in the last week of February. Our London Bridge restaurant opens at the end of June and will be the biggest to date at 3,000sq.ft. The ground floor is very much Benito’s Hat but we have also got 50 seats upstairs, which will allow us to push the evening piece a bit more – bar, taco nights, sharing plates, all-day dining experience, evening specials. My wife is pregnant and is due on 21st February and she said, it’s your business, surely you can plan it better than this! Equally exciting, will be to see how three kids fit into all that.

What is your top personal goal?
To settle in the central team. The general managers have  got wonderful stories, guys who started with us as minimum wage ambassadors, they are the most important thing for our growth, so it’s about making sure their development works and then we will be a phenomenally strong customer service led business by the end of the year.

What is your best seller and what is your favourite dish?
The chicken burrito is the most popular and our signature is the braised pork with black pepper, balsamic vinegar and tomatillo salsa, the thing that really stands out over above the other Mexican brands. Pork burrito with a classic margarita is my favourite. Margaritas are as much a part of Mexican food service at the casual end but they have been neglected too.

Given the tough times we have been through, how has the food to go market stood up so well?
There are some real success stories from the last few years – though it was a big space to fill. There is a more discerning and demanding market that is interested in food and a number of restaurateurs understood what people were asking for – the public broadly wanted to pay £5-£15 for better quality, freshly made food.

What levels of food inflation do you predict?
We have seen some food inflation – rice, meat – but the price of fuel has gone down so much, it has had a huge impact, though you have to work at it to get it reflected in the price. I think we should be looking at a couple of years that are a bit more stable.

Will consumer confidence rise and will that translate into more eating out?
Growth in the fast casual and casual market has outstripped all the doom and gloom of the economy of the last few years and I don’t see that changing. There are many small restaurant groups and I can see from their websites who is the founder and that they are still part of it, yet I know they are big enough to give me a consistent product every time. That is what gives the consumer confidence.

What eating out trends will grow this year?
Customisation is very much part of our business. It is great to have the option and people like to know they can pick and choose but I don’t think we’ll go as far as the States with all the add-ons, take-offs. Free from and allergies are understood a lot better and we look at animal welfare every day and do cost benefit analysis for us and for the customer, it is very important. All these things will continue to grow in prominence and awareness.

Define your competition
We put ourselves between fast casual and casual and our competition is the fast casual dining sector, as opposed to Mexican fast casual.

Is the Mexican trend increasing?
Yes, it has got more competitive. Even over the past year, if I have been looking at a site, often a couple of other Mexican restaurants are said to be showing an interest.

What challenges and opportunities does Benito's Hat face?
Bringing new people into the business is a big cost and it’s difficult – particularly that CEO position, where I’m hiring someone that’s not as straightforward as a boss because there are three of us that take the big decisions, but recognising that I’m not the experienced operator and nor is [chef] Felipe. Understanding how to grow a multi-site operation is a different ballgame and the CEO and operations manager have that experience.

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