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Brandon Stephens – My Life in Hospitality

15 January 2010 by

Brandon Stephens is the founder of Tortilla restaurants.

When Brandon Stephens moved to London from California in 2003, he had no idea his career was about to leap off in a new direction.

However, halfway through studying for an MBA at the London Business School he was tasked with writing a business plan. Inspired by the food of his childhood, Stephens chose to write a proposal for a chain of Mexican restaurants. "I grew up eating healthy, affordable burritos in California and I just couldn't find anything like it over here. As the concept evolved though, it increasingly became a real possibility," he says.

Stephens is the first to admit that the transition from classroom idea to business reality was a daunting task: "My background up until that point was e-commerce in a range of markets - news and information, online banking - so I had a lot of business experience.

"But to begin with, it was challenging being an American in the UK. I had no support network and it was difficult learning the legal framework of launching a business over here."

After Stephens graduated in 2005, he and his new business partner, Nadia, worked "tirelessly" creating recipes, sourcing equipment and suppliers, and finding the right location in which to launch: a difficult task because of his unproven track record.

The first Tortilla restaurant opened in Islington in north London on Halloween 2007, but despite all the preparation Stephens was not without nerves. "You can plan everything, right down to the tiniest detail, but you can't fully predict the number of customers who will come through your door."

But just one year on, Stephens was celebrating the opening of his second restaurant, this time in Bankside, which, he says, paved the way for the latest addition to the Tortilla portfolio in Canary Wharf.

In hindsight, Stephens is able to recognise just how challenging it is to start a new business from scratch. "There was a point during the run-up to the launch in Islington when I realised that had I known it was going to be this hard, I probably wouldn't have done it," he says. "It was much more challenging than I anticipated."

He adds: "I think you have to be smart enough to start a business, but also crazy enough to think you can succeed."

HIGHS… Launching the business and getting to this point has been a series of highs for Stephens.

"Each time we launch a site, it becomes a new life's achievement as we're progressing with each one. My background has been in business, but this is the most important one I've been involved with."

Sadly for Stephens, his father who was also an entrepreneur, passed away just before the opening of the first Tortilla branch in Islington. "He had been with me throughout the whole process of setting it up, I wish he had had a chance to see it."

HIGHS… Stephens considers customer complaints to be his low points. "I take it very personally. Any complaints we receive online, I answer myself. We don't get too many and none have been truly serious, but any complaint is frustrating, particularly valid ones," he says. "For example, we discovered our recipes should include avocados by weight rather than quantity after comments our guacamole was too salty when we'd had a batch of particularly small fruit."

The biggest setback in the launch of the chain was when its first chosen site in the Leicester Square area of London fell through at the eleventh hour.

"That was a heartbreaking, tear-shedding moment for me," Stephens confesses. "But in the end, I think it was a blessing in disguise and everything worked out for the best."

Age 36
Favourite holiday Ibiza
Drives VW Golf
Motto Live life and work hard

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