Inspired by San Francisco’s Mission District ‘taquerias’, Mexican burrito chain Tortilla has carved out a niche for itself in the UK market over the past 10 years and is aiming to reach 40-plus stores in 2018. Like any successful high street operation, it is only as good as the food it serves and the man responsible for that is Martyn Clover. FEJ headed down to the brand’s new Putney store to find out what makes its kitchens tick and why the search for the ultimate rice cooker is never-ending.
Martyn, you are head of food at Tortilla. What does that entail?
It is quite a wide-ranging role, from supporting the stores in the quality of the food to menu development, which is something that we have done more in the last year than we ever did in the past, particularly as we are trying to bring more seasonality into the menu. I also look after the central production unit. This central kitchen is very much one of our USPs and a huge part of the Tortilla family.
The slow-cooked meats and the beans are all made at our CPU in Tottenham Hale, so my role is making sure that the guys have got everything they need for the quality to be right, as well as making sure we have everything we need in store to produce food quickly and throughout the day. There are three reasons for that: one is that with food like ours it needs to move quickly, stay fresh and look great; secondly, we don’t have space to be bulk-producing everything anyway — and we wouldn’t want to even if we could — and thirdly, our meat takes over 12 hours to be fall-apart tender, so we need the space and time to do it before opening early each morning.
Has the central production kitchen always been a key aspect of Tortilla’s model?
We have had a CPU for the last few years and recently moved into a much bigger unit. The idea is we want to be able to do everything ourselves, we don’t want to outsource it. It gives us full control over every food aspect.
You have been with Tortilla for two years now. How much has the business changed since
I think we were 25 stores when I joined, and our Putney store, which has just opened, is number 35. It has grown quickly. When I joined we’d had the same menu for quite a long time so I have tried to introduce a few interesting things such as new ingredients and salsa. And we are obviously much more nationwide now, so Glasgow, Newcastle, Cardiff and Bristol have all opened since I’ve joined.
What does the pipeline look like for stores this year?
We’re aiming for around five to six stores in 2018. I’ll be involved in the kitchen side of things and how the layout of that goes together. There is always that pay-off of how much space you have in the restaurant and how much space you need in the kitchen, and we need a certain amount of space to produce things like guacamole and fresh salsas.
Preparing Mexican food presumably brings a different set of operational challenges to those that high street operators in other sectors might encounter?
Yes, I think so. It’s the simple fact that when you hand-make guacamole you have to lay out however many avocados to cut open in half. That needs to be thought-out. And then it’s little things like making sure you have got space either side of the rice cookers otherwise you lift the container out and you’ve got nowhere to go with it.
What are the core pieces of kitchen equipment you need to make each store function on a daily basis?
Combi ovens are key for us to cook product. In the morning we need to start generating everything for the line, so every store apart from a couple of the really old ones has a combi. And rice cookers are obviously critical for us, so every store has two, three, sometimes four rice cookers to fit in. We have got a split of stores with solid top grills too, but it tends to be based on size. Stores like Putney don’t have a grill but we do grill chicken from our CPU, which tastes amazing. Front-of-house we use warmers for the wraps and every store has at least two of those generally — one on the main line for burritos and tacos, and one for quesadillas, which is generally used in the afternoon.
“The challenge is finding bigger rice cookers that still produce the quality that we need”
Do you spend a lot of time considering anticipated demand when choosing equipment for each store?
Yes, we look at things like what size combi the store is going to need. You have to get quite detailed in terms of how many containers you can get into it and how many containers the store is going to need throughout the day. The main pressure is the mornings, which is the only time you need the full line at the same time. Then throughout the day you’ve got guys in the kitchen prepping as one of our strengths is that our fresh stuff is very quick to put together.
Has the equipment side of things changed much in your time with the company?
In terms of combis, we have got a more flexible attitude and we have begun working a little bit with Unox. Traditionally every store has a Rational but Unox is quite interesting and we have been working with them specifically in terms of what we need the oven to do. I went out to the factory and it was really interesting. They make 95% of the components of the ovens themselves. I am also looking at ways to speed up things like quesadillas. There is high-speed oven technology out there to do that.
The other thing is that I am always looking for a better rice cooker! They always seem to have similar technology but the performance varies greatly. The challenge is finding bigger rice cookers that still produce the quality that we need. They all seem to get to a certain capacity and don’t get any bigger, whereas some of our big stores do a serious amount of rice. Even if we could have a couple of rice cookers double the size, we would still get through it quickly!
Combi oven manufacturers will tell you that their equipment can produce rice. Is that an option as opposed to a traditional rice cooker?
We could do that but I’d class it as a contingency if I’m honest. The Mexican rice that we do has a tomato mix that we cook into the rice and from a flavour point of view that works better inside a rice cooker. The pressure forces the flavour into it and I find when I do it in the combi the flavour is not as intense. But it is there as an option if we need it to be.
How would you describe Tortilla’s philosophy and attitude towards kitchen equipment?
Any equipment we use is going to take a beating because the nature of our food means that we are never going to be doing just one cook a day. Even in our quietest stores it is a case of ‘cook little, cook often’. So before we move onto a new piece of equipment we need to really check it out. Even with bringing in Unox there is definitely a sense that it will need to survive in one of our stores for quite a long time before we use it.
Even in our quietest stores, it is a case of ‘cook little, cook often’. So before we move onto a new piece of equipment we need to really check it out”
Do you have a timeframe of how long you expect equipment to last before you need to reinvest?
I have not really talked to the guys here about that. In my experience, it is 10 years for a combi and, touch wood, I haven’t had to replace any combis since I have been here.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about making sure your kitchens are properly equipped?
That’s a tricky question. I’d say you definitely need to put a bit of kit through the wringer a few times. The showroom is great, but it always works in the showroom! And it’s also important to invest in the time to train the guys. I think in our industry there is sometimes an assumption that everybody knows how to use a piece of equipment like a combi, but that’s not always the case.
You mentioned you’d visited Unox’s factory in Italy. How important is it for somebody in your role to see how the equipment is built and gain an understanding of the company behind the kit?
I think it helps to give you a deeper understanding of what the equipment can do, and if you spend a bit of time somewhere you will always pick up little pieces of knowledge and discover that it can do things you didn’t realise it could. It might not be anything I can introduce now, but I might be thinking about it. And if you do have any problems, not that we particularly have, it means there is a personal relationship there and you can pick the phone up.
You are now up to 35 stores and you’re aiming to cross the 40 mark in 2018. As the business scales does it present more challenges from a kitchen equipment point of view or is the overall number irrelevant?
There is obviously the CPU point of view to think about, but with the new CPU we are in we have got space there to grow. In terms of the stores, we have now got a really strong model in how to operate, so I think the number is less relevant in that respect. There are certainly no plans to stop or slow down. There is plenty of appetite for what we are doing.
Tortilla takes on small kitchen format
Tortilla’s latest store on Putney high street is its smallest yet at only 700 square feet and could pave the way for the brand to launch more mini sites, particularly in London. In Putney there is less emphasis on dining space and more on queuing as the demographics of the area mean customers are likely to grab-and-go and order delivery rather than eat in.
“Sites in London are at a premium as everyone knows and I think what this will hopefully prove to us is that it works in a site like this,” he says. “Our kitchen set-up and the fact that we produce all our own food at the CPU as well as fresh in-store means we are capable of operating in places that maybe not all of our competitors can.”
Clover says that, contrary to what you might expect, the kitchen in the Putney store did not require a radical redesign despite being significantly smaller than what it is used to.
“Putney is a great example of a kitchen that is really small, but actually when you analyse it you don’t need any additional space because if you did it would just create more walking. The number of steps is something we do consider in our designs. There is a fairly standard distance between the front of the line and the back of the line because we don’t want the guys having to take that extra step. When you add that up over the course of a day it makes quite a big difference.”