West end western

01 January 2000
West end western

The 425-seat Texas Embassy Cantina, which opened just over a year ago, is now one of the most successful Tex-Mex restaurants in London. The Texan general manager, Thom Jackson, says: "I've opened 10 restaurants and I've never seen faster returns than here."

The restaurant is the brainchild of four directors, Gene Street, Russell Ramsland and A Hardcastle Jr from Dallas, Texas, and Sir Alan Traill from London. Jackson has worked previously with Street, who owns Good Eats Restaurants, a chain of 16 family-style restaurants in Texas.

The Texan directors believed there was a gap in the market for a Tex-Mex restaurant that was "not something quick in the microwave, but the real thing, using fresh ingredients and dishes prepared to order", says Jackson.

The Tex-Mex theme has proved so popular the directors are considering expansion in Edinburgh and other UK cities as well as on the Continent. "We need to find locations where the theme will work," says Jackson.

The restaurant, formerly a bank, is a listed building and had been empty for several years. The biggest challenge in refurbishing the property was that the vaults were still in existence downstairs and had to be lifted out with a crane.

This could only be done on a Sunday because of local planning and building regulations. As a result, the refurbishment had to be scheduled around the removal of the vaults. The building's listed status also meant the exterior had to be maintained, and the restaurant's signage has had to be subtle.

Jackson arranged for all the kitchen equipment to be brought over from the USA and had it converted to European Union safety and manufacturing standards, including converting the equipment to run on UK electricity.

Although much of the cooking could have been done on existing European machinery, Jackson felt that to maintain authenticity, they should extend to specialist cooking equipment.

Staff have played an important part in the success of the restaurant; in fact they even helped to build it. The restaurant was behind construction schedule and six weeks prior to opening, the staff realised it wasn't going to open in time and so got down to work. They tiled, scrubbed off graffiti, painted and sanded down the walls.

"It was upsetting for me," says Jackson, "as they weren't doing the job they were trained to do."

But the positive side was that it developed a sense of ownership in the staff, and apart from those employees who have had to return to the USA and Canada, there has been a low staff turnover. Altogether, there are 25 waiting staff, eight bartenders, 35-40 kitchen staff and five managers including Jackson.

All members of staff are trained in the US-style of service, although Jackson says: "My staff are not overbearing. We train them to take pride in what they do. I think the secret of a successful restaurant is 90% staff. People say location is the most important aspect, but I've seen some horrible locations where people return because the service is so good."

The restaurant has two floors. Jackson describes the ground floor as the Mexican side of the border, while upstairs represents the Texan side of the border.

This is reflected in the decor, with the ground floor resembling a stage-set depicting a Mexican border town, complete with a huge bar, fiesta lights and trees. There is a large counter in full view of the customers on which tortillas are made, and behind this the kitchen is clearly visible, divided into the frying and cooking sections. The tables were made from old wood from a Texan ranch.

Designer Rex Kirby from Dallas worked on the project from an early stage. To make sure that everything looked authentic, Kirby and the directors travelled to Mexico and took photographs. At a later stage, Olly James, a British set decorator, was hired to decorate the restaurant.

"We didn't want an artist to come in here and paint a wall. We wanted someone who could get a feel for this set," says Jackson.

A good example of James's work is the realistic cowboy mural on the first floor.

A merchandising counter, where customers can purchase various items sporting the restaurant logo, from key-rings to denim shirts, is situated en route to the upper floor.

The restaurant specialises in Tex-Mex food, which Jackson describes as "200 years' worth of recipes developed in the border towns of Texas and Mexico, using fresh produce such as chillies to create a distinct taste - not necessarily heat, but an intense flavour".

Margaritas, which Jackson claim are the best in London, are a speciality. There are several varieties but the most popular, he says, is Margarita's Margarita, made from Tequila, Cointreau and lime juice. The restaurant serves it both frozen and on the rocks, and has eight Frosty Factory Margarita machines to meet the demand for frozen Margaritas.

The average customer spend at the restaurant is £7-£12 for lunch and £12-£20 for dinner, with between 300-500 people a day being served during the week and 400-600 a day at the weekends. It is open from noon until 11pm during the week, although it tends to stay open later at the weekend. Thursday and Friday nights are busy, while Saturday night is a big family night out and the upper floor is usually hired for a private party.

One of the successes of the business is the option of using the top floor as a private function room, which can hold up to 200 people. This is unusual for a themed restaurant, but Jackson says the past few months have been extremely busy with bookings for office celebrations, children's parties and even weddings.

Average spend at these functions is £15-£25 per head, including drinks. Several standard menus are offered for dinner parties, children's parties and office parties, although Jackson says every party menu tends to be individually created, according to the client's needs.

The emphasis is on fun and US country and western games can be organised, including a bucking bronco, which Jackson says is popular, and roping the cactus.

"We've held parties for people from the US embassy and British Customs and Excise department who say they want a fun night out, something different, rather than a stuffy affair," he says.

The Texas Embassy Cantina's reputation is such it was virtually full over the Christmas period for parties. "We tend to get referrals from existing clients. After we held the US embassy function, we got 12 phone calls from people for parties," he says.

The Texas Embassy Cantina is in Cockspur Street, close to Trafalgar Square, London.

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