THE WINNER: Eren Ali, Las Iguanas
Sponsored by: Bunzl Catering Suppliers and Bunzl Lockhart Catering Equipment
Eren Ali launched Las Iguanas in a quiet street in Bristol in 1991 with business partner Ajith Wickrema to give the locals "a taste of Latin life".
"Ajith and I wanted to create something special, something alive, that made people feel good about themselves and feel good about life in general," Ali, this year's Restaurateur of the Year - Group winner, has said.
His vision has certainly spread - first throughout the West Country and now beyond, to Liverpool, Leicester, Nottingham, Leeds, Brighton, Birmingham, Milton Keynes and London.
With 22 sites in total across the UK and backing from private equity firm Bowmark Capital, not to mention the experience of non-executive chairman Ian Neill (chairman of noodle chain Wagamama), the company's stated ambition to grow to more than 100 outlets remains plauisible, despite the tough times facing the economy.
The secret to this success? "I always go to the restaurant with a smile on my face," was how one employee described her experience of working for the company in a glowing Investors in People review from last year, which left our panel of judges impressed.
One manager at the company told Investors in People that working with Eren was "like working with my uncle", which, depending on your uncle, may or may not be good, but in this case fed into the assessor's view that this is a company built on a basis of mutual respect, irrespective of position.
Judge Paul Ettinger, business development director at Caffè Nero, was impressed. "Eren Ali has successfully created a growing, profitable restaurant business which has a unique customer service culture that creates a tangible buzz, pride and sense of purpose among the staff which anyone eating in this establishment cannot fail to notice," he said.
Ettinger added: "It's a great concept, brilliantly executed, which will continue to grow for many years."
Tim Cookson, chairman of the Litmus Partnership, said: "His personal recipe has the critical ingredients of consistency, focus and application."
Another judge added: "Eren has demonstrated an outstanding commitment to spreading the ‘eat Latin, drink Latin' word with his meticulous development of Las Iguanas."
The final say went to Ian Neill, who commented: "The staff enthusiasm for Las Iguanas is enormous, and I believe this comes from Eren's relentless investment in the people and culture of the company. It certainly contributes significantly to the success of the brand."
- Eren Ali, managing director, Las Iguanas
- Iain Donald, operations director, Individual Restaurant Company
- Andrew Page, The Restaurant Group
- Nick Basing
- Tim Cookson, chairman, Litmus Partnership
- Jonathan Doughty, group managing director, Coverpoint
- Paul Ettinger, business development director, Caffè Nero
- Simon Kossoff, managing director, Carluccio's
- Ian Neill, chairman, Wagamama
- Robin Rowland, chief executive officer, Yo! Sushi