When unusual dinners turn into business ideas

WHO on earth is born with Mexican restaurant chain abilities in their DNA?” asks Eric Partaker. He and Dan Houghton decided to make it part of theirs when they launched the Mexican restaurant chain Chilango. Neither are Mexican or had run a restaurant before. But they found they made a good team when working at Skype five years ago. “We paired up business trips with market research and drew up the first business plan while we were still working there,” Eric explains. In just three years, that business plan has generated a £3.5m annual turnover and employs 80 staff across four restaurants. City A.M. readers are likely to be familiar with their colourful outlet on Fleet Street next to the Goldman Sachs headquarters.

Eric first had the burrito-brainwave on a trip to his native Norway years before he met Dan. Having grown up in Chicago he found it bizarre that there weren’t any Mexican restaurants in Oslo: “I lived in a state with the largest Mexican population in the US outside Los Angeles. Mexican food was everywhere. I fell in love with it like every American. But I couldn’t find real Mexican food anywhere and the stuff that was available was crap. People didn’t have a good reference point.”

Despite the inspiration, Eric didn’t do anything about it: “I had the light bulb moment, but I was too immature and didn’t have any money so I just filed it away.” It wasn’t until he moved to London and encountered the same problem that he seriously started to think about setting up his own.

Dan did not get introduced to the idea until he and his now wife were used as guinea pigs for Eric’s market research. “We used to go to these really unnecessarily complicated dinner parties at Eric’s where he would cook different versions of the same dish with different beans and ask lots of odd questions about our palates.” “I was trying to work out if British people liked Mexican food!” Eric retorts.

It wasn’t until an evening in 2005 that Eric popped Dan the question: “I remember saying do you know anyone really smart that I could work well with that would be interested in starting up a chain of Mexican restaurants? He turned to me and said that’s a stupid question – me!” Dan was so convinced he quit his job and started looking for locations as soon as the business plan was in place: “I had no income for the first year. It was scary but I was just sure it would work.”

Setting up wasn’t easy. Dan explains: “We went to 200 meetings with prospective investors. We wanted to find the right capital because we had heard horror stories about businesses that were going great but their investors wanted something else or were trying to pull them in a different direction. We wanted to make sure that we resisted the temptation to take money simply because it was on the table. We only wanted the money if it was from someone aligned with what we wanted the business to become”. After all, as Eric explains: “We’re not doing this to just make money and have a sound business plan, we’re doing it because we want be the best in the sector.”

CV | CHILANGO

Founders: Dan Houghton and Eric Partaker
Turnover: £3.5m per year
Staff: 80 across four restaurants
Outlets: Fleet Street and Upper Street, London. Bluewater, Kent and Meadowhall, Sheffield.
Awards:
“Best New Concept”, Retailers’ Retailer of the Year Awards 2010;
Voted “#1 Best Buy” and “Best Mexican Cuisine” by the Zagat Survey
Eric Partaker

Age: 34?
Born: Chicago, Illinois?
Lives: Islington, London?
Studied: Finance, University of Illinois?
Drinking: “Yes”?
Reading: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone ?
Talents: “Fire Breathing”?
Motto: “Laugh as hard as possible.”
Dan Houghton

Age: 33?
Born: London
Lives: Herne Hill, London ?
Studied: Mathematics, Cambridge
Drinking: “If you’re buying”
Reading: Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh
Talents: Accounts?
Motto: “It’s not the big that beat the small, it’s the fast that beat the slow.”