With plans to double the size of the business in the next two years, Ibérica managing director Marcos Fernandez Pardo is determined to promote authentic Spanish produce across the country, says James Stagg
It's been seven years since you first opened Ibérica in Marylebone, London. Has the journey been as expected?
When we started, in our first two years, we made every mistake in the book. It's a miracle we're still here. Originally, we hired a managing director that was a minority shareholder.
At the beginning, my intention wasn't to be fully involved. Initially, we were trying to make the company more traditional, but it didn't go well, so we got rid of those guys and brought in new shareholders.
How did you change the structure?
We found [Carluccio's executive chairman] Stephen Gee and convinced him this was the next project he should be chairing. We then brought in Emilio Fernandez, who still represents the other shareholders in Ibérica today.
We focused on getting good, solid management systems in place, as well as solid stocking and menu control systems. We trained
everyone on it, along with the EPoS system, so we could use it to the maximum level, and we got everyone trained on the booking software.
Now we're working on systems that all link together. We've also fine-tuned the brand and our corporate image. We've changed the logo, the menus and what we are offering.
Where is the business now with its expansion plans?
We started with Marylebone in 2007, which remains the powerhouse of the business. We then opened in Canary Wharf in 2011. The terrace [Ibérica La Terraza, an al fresco restaurant in Cabot Square] came as part of the deal with Canary Wharf, but we didn't want to go from one to three sites straight away. We wanted to concentrate on the restaurant as we were already pulling a lot of people from Marylebone, so we waited until April 2013 before opening Ibérica La Terraza.
Farringdon opened this year and Manchester, which is a £5m investment, will open in November. I think Manchester is going to beat them all. Then we're opening in London Victoria in June 2015 and looking at a site in Edinburgh for 2016. That's a good timeline for us.
So you're on course for 10 sites by 2016?
When we say 10 sites, I want three terraces among those sites. There's a terrace in Manchester and I'm looking to find a terrace
That's more than doubling the business in two yearsâ¦
It's more difficult to do one to two than two to four. But you can always double. A well-run business should have someone ready to fill the boss's boots. Someone should be aiming for their job. I'm waiting for someone to oust me. That should be the aim.
In terms of our programme on growth, we've been ready for it for two years; we have the head office function all in place. But it's
a massive investment. We're spending 15% of turnover to keep the team ready and that really should be 4%.
How have you raised the finance?
Initially it was equity, and now it's the bank. We give good numbers. It's a huge investment, but the truth is that when we open restaurants very quickly we get them to the minimum revenue we should be doing. We make money on them very quickly and manage to juggle everyone's interest.
We've always had the ambition to be a restaurant company. It's why we've invested so heavily in the office function and a good
board of directors.
How do you develop your teams to ensure you've got the skills in place?
You need to take people out of your restaurants and train others to replace them. We like people growing from the inside and give our employees career prospects. Cesar, our group head chef, started as sous chef in our first restaurant, so he's been with us from day one.
When we hire from the outside, we bring people into our current restaurants. So for the November opening in Manchester, people are now being trained in our London restaurants.
Was Nacho Manzano, your executive chef, involved from the beginning?
We agreed early on that we wouldn't use Nacho's name until he walked into the restaurant and was completely happy. He devises all the dishes - we use his restaurant as a lab for our restaurants too. We don't do consultancy. That model is failed as it doesn't align the interests of the chef with the project, so Nacho is a shareholder here.
If you look at other cases, there have been situations where the consultant chef is under pressure to adapt dishes. They then get a bad review and find out that the restaurant is closing through the press. Aside from it being a failed model, it's not good for the chef.
What does he bring to the business?
Nacho encourages the chefs to give him suggestions - he's incredibly approachable. He will let another chef argue passionately and listen. Obviously, the guy that's in the restaurant all day long knows what's happening and has to be able to express his opinion.
He is extremely particular, so we buy our cornflour from a particular supplier in Spain. Our white beans for a bean stew are favas.
They're four times as expensive as any other - don't ask me why - but he buys them from one producer. Even with those his chefs check each one for density.
How has the food developed?
I think we've improved and our kitchen has improved, so we can do more things. We've now got a strong recipe bank. We send data to Nacho and his team to analyse it - not just to see which dish has sold the most, but to find out which has sold the most on Monday. We want to understand how people eat. We've taken best sellers out because they didn't fit with the next menu. The chefs have a list of dishes they want to try, but first they have go to the purchasing manager and ask her to find the product at a reasonable price.
When we started, we did tapas only. We brought the pinxos in for the terrace. Now, the Farringdon site is a slightly different concept again. It's much smaller and has a developed bar - it's got a beer tap, which the other restaurants don't have. We also change the menus depending on where the restaurant is. Someone in Canary Wharf has a different life to someone in Marylebone.
What about your wine?
Wine is sourced by Fernando Gonzales, general manager of Canary Wharf and La Terrazza. Before the recession, many of the smaller wineries wouldn't sell to us because it was easier to sell to the domestic market, but as the market shrank they made more
of an effort to export. We source 40% of the wines ourselves.
The highest seller is still Rioja, but when the guests get to know us, they begin to trust our suggestions. We are always trying wines from different parts of Spain that might not be well known, but are of great quality. We've got highly priced Rioja on the list, with a crazy margin to encourage the guests to give some other wines a try.
How do you balance the menu in terms of gross profit?
Chefs need to comply with a GP, but that means that if some dishes sell well and have a good GP, like croquetas, you can include
dishes with a lower GP. That's the case with the sweetbreads, which Nacho insisted had to be on the menu. They add to the experience of the customer.
So can you be more adventurous with some dishes if others cover the cost?
When you dine out, you do it for the experience. It's the dining room, the service, hanging out with your mates and trying new things. A dish like the sweetbreads [lamb sweetbreads, two-way egg and roasted red peppers (£6)] is high complexity, but it's such a good dish we want people to try it. It doesn't matter that we don't make the whole GP, as it won't make a significant impact on the overall GP. Everything else is still priced fairly, but the quantities of sweetbreads will never be big enough to make an impact in comparison to other dishes. But those guests who try the sweetbreads will leave impressed. Once they've tried them, we'll have left something ingrained in their brain.
We're always looking at how we can give a better product to the customer, but of course, we're a business and we want to make money. A normal margin is the one that allows you to go to the financial markets to fund yourself. If you want more than that, you're taking something out of the customer and the experience.
Ibérica is well known for the authenticity of its ingredients. Do you sell produce beyond the deli concepts in the restaurants?
We imported all the hams and cheeses from day one. We did do some wholesaling early on, but that was related to the managing director that we have since parted company with.
We've looked for distributors for some of the producers we use. We've even brought distributors in to try produce and they are blown away by the quality at a price. They think there's a catch, but all we want is to be acknowledged as the first to be using this product.
Is the deli side something that will continue with the new openings?
We're going to intensify it - all our restaurants will have a deli. The restaurants are the first point of contact the gourmet world has to a new market; it's the way products get introduced. Our job is feeding people, but our obligation is to support Spain. For instance, we will only serve Cava - which has been mauled in this country - but some Cavas are fantastic quality. Up to £200 a bottle it can compete, but above that it's all Champagne.
A restaurant has a social obligation in that sense, and we'll follow that philosophy. You'llnever see us selling our own brand, just like you'll never see us selling Champagne.
Ibérica at a glance
- Managing director Marcos Fernandez Pardo
- Non-executive directors Stephen Gee (chairman), Emilio Fernandez, Honorio Fernandez Gimenzez and James Kennell
- Operations director Pedro Carvalho
- Finance director Sarah Winters
- Executive chef Nacho Manzano
- Group head chef César Garcia
- Turnover £6.9m gross
- Employees 100
- Most profitable site Marylebone
- Best-selling dish Serrano ham croquetas (£6/£10)
- Average spend £30 per head. The cheapest menu is £10
- Opened September 2007
- Covers 120
Ibérica Canary Wharf
- Opened November 2011
- Covers: 130
Ibérica La Terraza
- Opened April 2013
- Covers 200 (including standing bar area)
- Opened April 2014
- Covers 66 in the restaurant and 26 in the bar
- Opening Autumn 2014 (October/November)
- Covers 200 (including a terrace concept)
Ibérica London Victoria
- Opening Spring 2015
- Covers Still at design stage, with seating for 48 outside and 120-130 inside
Sample dishes from the menu
- Juan Pedro Domecq from Jabugo Huelva: 100% jamÁ³n Ibérico puro de Bellota from wild pigs (£10/£20 for 30g/60g)
- Gazpacho of red berries, beetroot and anchovy (£4)
- Sea trout with almond purée, pickled cauliflower and smoked olive oil (£8)
- Chicken with chilindron sauce and rosemary potatoes (£6)
A taste of Spain
Marco Fernandez Pardo's mission at Ibérica is to make the experience as authentic as possible. The produce is painstakingly selected to ensure that the provenance and sensory perception showcases the very best of Spain.
Its acorn-fed Ibérico ham - which Ibérica sourced and specified before helping some of the producers with UK distribution - is served as fine shavings of meat that melt on the tongue. The croquetas are made with a thick béchamel and ham sauce centre, rather than a potato mix. Elsewhere on the menu, executive chef Nacho Manzano, who holds two Michelin stars at Casa Marcial and one at La Salgar in Spain, is afforded the creative space to devise dishes such as black rice with cuttlefish, prawn and aÁ¯oli sauce (£8) and twice-cooked lamb, marinated cherry tomatoes and red peppers from El Bierzo (£9).
"How we work the menu is you have to be able to eat at Ibérica for £15-£20 and then there are add-ons," explains Pardo. "The menu is made up of one-third fixed dishes, like croquetas and fresh calamari, one third is dishes in our bank that are changed according to season, and a final third is where Nacho can experiment with dishes," Pardo adds. "We need a bank of recipes because then, in time, we will have a bank of specials.
"We want to get to the point where if a fishmonger says they have fabulous tuna, the chefs already have a proven tuna dish that we can include on the menu."