Las Iguanas is the casual dining chain that has lit up the UK market with its unique take on authentic Latin American cuisine. FEJ met with head of food development, Glenn Evans, to understand why skilled chefs are so integral to its offering and the role that the latest equipment is playing in facilitating a true fresh food proposition.
It was shortly after joining Las Iguanas in 2015 that Glenn Evans realised that things had gone full circle in many ways.
Having started his career in hotel catering, he forged a path that saw him take on high-level food development roles for the likes of Greene King, SSP Group and Compass Group, the latter of which involved working closely with the Marks & Spencer account.
He then moved to Reynolds Catering Supplies, where he relished the company’s diverse customer profile and unrelenting focus on fresh produce. One day he would be showcasing the best of seasonality to the head chef of a Michelin star restaurant, the next he’d be going into a school to explain how they could produce a nutritious lunch from the most primitive of kitchens.
So when he moved across to the Latin American casual dining brand, which was in the process of being taken over by current owner CDG at the time, he was delighted to discover the strength of the culinary foundations that the business is built on.
“Las Iguanas was a fresh brand that really excited me,” he explains. “And it wasn’t until I got into the interview process and understanding their kitchens that I realised that actually we have gone full turn. While added value items such as bread and tortillas are readymade, we have chefs working on the majority of products that we offer and all our sauces and salsas are made in-house. It’s finding that balance of being able to take complexity out of a kitchen where it makes sense, because what we have in a Las Iguanas kitchen is very different to your standard operator.
“Our main regen is a stove, chargrill, fryers and then microwaves for specific product reheating. We will hold sauces in a bain-marie, but there is no salamander. Sites do have ovens but not a lot of them have them within their kitchen lines, so we can use them for prep and cooking but we can’t use them throughout peak service points. That whole regeneration thing is still something that we want to look at. It is something that is on our list to improve the finish of certain dishes without slowing the operation down.”
Evans’ focus over the past three years has centred heavily on helping the chain, which numbers 55 restaurants in the UK, diversify and enhance its menu offer. His priority was to make the products fresher-looking, achieved by touches such as changing the crockery and presentation, using micro herbs and preparing fresh pink pickled onions to finish off a dish and really lift it.
“Now I am looking at it and going, ‘well, if we want to up our game and we want to make our enchilada or our nachos the best in the business then we need to have those pieces of equipment to be able to take us to that next level,” he reveals.
The kitchen templates that Evans inherited were all based around efficiency, making sure that the chefs could build and execute quickly without compromising quality. He absolutely agrees that this is the way it should be, but also feels it is probably a good time to make some strategic changes, especially given the labour challenges facing the industry.
“Finding the right skill level in this sector is key for us because there aren’t many chefs in the casual dining sector that have the necessary skill levels required for our kitchens specifically. We don’t want to jeopardise everything by taking the easier route of outsourcing everything to a manufacturer because the fundamental ethos of why we are so successful is that a lot of our salsas and sauces are prepared by our chefs in-house. I would therefore rather focus on trying to make the kitchen more efficient and bring in some newer equipment that improves the quality.”
Top of the priority list is a chargrill that helps chefs deliver a better quality steak and burger, but which can also tick some major sustainability factors in terms of heat output and cleaning, followed by a good quality salamander that can perfectly finish off items such as enchiladas and provide the ‘gratination’ for true authenticity that Evans is seeking.
And with one eye on how to future-proof a kitchen and take the set-up to a new level in terms of energy efficiency and speed of service, he is convinced that induction needs to become a focal point of Las Iguanas’ kitchens, too.
It’s finding that balance of being able to take complexity out of a kitchen where it makes sense, because what we have in a Las Iguanas kitchen is very different to your standard operator”
“Gas is great and such a lot of our chefs are used to it, but actually induction could help us in a lot of ways. Fajitas are one of our top-selling dishes so we have undercounter ovens that are literally only used for keeping skillets hot at the moment. But we still have to bring them up and put them onto the gas flame. Induction would allow us to get skillets to that maximum heat within 30 seconds, and help us deliver a quicker, more consistent fajita, as well as improve the speed of cooking our Brazilian curries and sauces.
“It would also give us extra space. Some of the kitchens in our estate are very small — they still have all of the necessary things they need in terms of the template we have got, but they have very limited prep space. Induction would alter that because if they are not cooking on it they can be preparing on it. None of our estate has induction at the moment, but we do see that as the next phase.”
After what has been a turbulent 12 months for the casual dining sector, Las Iguanas plans to return to restaurant opening mode this year. Several new sites are scheduled to launch in early 2019 and that will provide Evans and his team with an opportunity to introduce some of the equipment enhancements that are in the pipeline. He admits that there are always little tweaks that can be made to ensure continuous improvement.
As the head of food development, Evans is ultimately looking to satisfy some key criteria when devising new menu items. Firstly, the dish has got to look and taste spectacular, secondly it needs to make sufficient margin, and thirdly he needs to know that it is operationally feasible.
You can create the most delicious, authentic South American dish in the world, but if it is too complicated for the kitchen to construct it is only going to lead to problems.
“I work with a great F&B team to make sure we are covering all of those fundamental factors. Our objective is not to add any more complexity to our kitchen and to make sure that any made-from-scratch recipes are consistently delivered. Manufacturers can’t replicate fresh coriander, fresh onions, fresh lemon juice, fresh lime juice — they buy concentrates or IQF products that just don’t have the same flavour or visual as fresh and these are generally the ingredients that make ours stand out from the rest of them.
“I am really lucky because our CEO Mos [Shamel] is so passionate about the food and drink offer. It would be easy for him to outsource from a commercial or labour point of view but because he is a chef and he appreciates the food offer, he knows that our customers understand that. We have focused a lot on our messaging through our menus this year and the made-from-scratch ethos is really resonating with our customers now. It would be ridiculous for us to go back against that because we have out-performed our target since we introduced the new menu in April, which bucks the trend of what is happening out there at the moment.”
With up to 10 chefs per site, and double that at its Royal Festival Hall restaurant, Las Iguanas boasts a pool of culinary talent that numbers more than 500. The company employs two regional development chefs that recruit, train and mentor internally, and below those it has a number of area support chefs which each have a remit for a specific geography.
“We have now got a really good structure from me all the way down, making sure we are delivering consistently,” says Evans.
Las Iguanas typically implements two main menu changes a year — autumn-winter and spring-summer — as well as a separate Christmas menu, which usually has to be out by June to catch the start of the Christmas booking trade.
None of our estate has induction equipment at the moment, but we do see that as the next phase”
The company famously sends a team to South America at the beginning of every year to gather new menu ideas and experience authentic food and cooking techniques up close.
Last year Evans and the team travelled to Brazil, where they took in Rio de Janeiro and the Amazon during their trip, while this month they flew out to Mexico.
“What with the success of our retail range in Sainsbury’s, our biggest opportunity next year is enhancing our Mexican offer both in the restaurants and on the shelves by introducing things like authentic Oaxacan dishes but also tapping into some more unknown territories like Venezuela and Colombia. There is always a lot that you can take inspiration from — we are always looking to take elements that can help us lift a dish to that next level,” concludes Evans.
Bringing authenticity to UK kitchens
Las Iguanas is the ultimate case study of an independent operator that successfully evolved into a nationwide, multi-site chain.
Starting out small in a quiet Bristol street in 1991, it became something of a local institution with its blend of fresh ingredients, Latin rhythms and the rich colour palette of the southern hemisphere.
The company’s passion for learning native recipes and authentic cooking techniques has been a major factor in its growth. Its travels have taken it to some of the most exciting kitchens and markets in South America, where it has endeavoured to see how traditional dishes are produced from scratch and replicate elements of those in the UK.
The chain insists on using fresh ingredients in its kitchens, with more than 30 salsas and sauces made by hand each day.
The sustainable sourcing of food is hugely important to Las Iguanas as part of the Casual Dining Group and a key criteria in developing menus across its restaurants.
It has been with some of its suppliers for many years, and proudly supports native South American businesses, such as its coffee supplier, Daterra, which is Rainforest Alliance-certified, and its cachaca partner, Magnifica, which grows its own organic sugar cane, mixed only with local spring water during distillation.