The head of food development for Las Iguanas is eager to ensure the chain does whatever it can to retain its focus on skilled chefs even though growing industry challenges such as cost and labour mean it is having to examine options such as centralised kitchens.
The Latin American-themed chain, which is a key part of the Casual Dining Group’s 300-strong restaurant estate, runs one of the more comprehensive kitchen operations in the business due to the ingredients and make-up of its dishes.
Glenn Evans, head of food development for Las Iguanas, said the group’s kitchens are reliant on cooks that know exactly what they are doing.
“We are easily put into that same bracket of our competitors, [in the] casual dining sector, where a lot of the chefs are not chefs, they are food handlers, they are opening up bags and reheating stuff. I am proud to say we have got a really good set of skilled chefs in our business and I want to maintain that for as long as I can, so at the moment we produce everything in-house. Our percentage of fresh is probably 75% to 80% and we buy in complex manufactured ingredients products to complement those fresh ingredients.”
Mr Evans acknowledged that as market forces take hold and the industry evolves, it would be remiss of it not to look at ways to safeguard its position in the future without comprising its commitment to fresh food.
“We know that it is not going to get any easier in the future — we have already lost a lot of chefs through Brexit — so we are looking at other solutions, like a central kitchen, so that we can still control a lot of those fresh recipes. We have tried it with some of our manufacturer partners who work with some of our sister brands and unfortunately we don’t get the same result. And obviously in South American dining when it comes to the Brazilian sauces you are never going to get anything better unless it is prepared fresh on the day.”
Mr Evans said the only thing that Las Iguanas does to save time for chefs from a prep point of view is buy in peeled onions, diced onions and diced pico de gallo. “It takes that pressure off them and allows them to do a lot more,” he explained.
As well as Las Iguanas, Mr Evans and his exec chef team look after the La Tasca and La Vino brands. Between them, the three businesses comprise 63 restaurants.
He believes the company’s vertical focus gives it a point of differentiation in a fiercely-contested casual dining sector as it is not forced to follow mainstream food trends.
“If you look at specific genres of food — South American for Las Iguanas — you have got a lovely big pool [of ingredients] to chose from and it is so diverse in terms of what we can go and do. You don’t have to allude to trends in the industry, we can just keep coming up with brand new ideas from different countries. We just want to try and stick to the roots that are coming out of these countries in terms of authenticity and provenance and using authentic product and ingredient, but at the same time give it that Las Iguanas, La Tasca or La Vina twist,” he commented.
Mr Evans was speaking on the ‘Menu Innovation for Multi-site Operators’ panel at the recent Casual Dining Show.