By CG Randall
It started in a garage where cartons of stock – tomatillos, salsa picante, tortillas – crowded out the usual trappings. Orders were packaged in the kitchen.
“There were only 30 items back then, but I saw the potential,” says Mexican-born Katya Torres de la Rocha, who in 2009 bought MexGrocer.co.uk, a small online delivery service specialising in Mexican Food. She paid £10,000. “It was a website, run as a hobby. I imagined more than that.”
Within a year, MexGrocer’s new CEO moved the business into a converted barn. Five years on, MexGrocer is housed in a 20,000 square foot industrial warehouse in Luton and has seen a steady rise in sales and revenue. In 2009, annual revenue stood at £25,000, climbing in 2014 to an estimated £750,000. Sales have jumped from £300 a week in 2009 to £15,000 currently, while stock has burgeoned to 500 items. Most of the company’s clients are based in London – caterers, restaurants, home cooks and a hefty Mexican population – but goods are sent around the UK and Europe as well.
In a strategic move last year, MexGrocer penned a deal with Amazon.co.uk to supply 100 products to the online giant. Products such as margarita mix and chilli sauce can now be dispatched within 24 hours of an order being placed in what MexGrocer CEO Torres calls an “incredibly sophisticated distribution system.”
For Torres, who opened her first restaurant in London in 2004, the deal signals the UK’s growing appetite for Mexican food and ingredients. She is backed by recent data from the market researchers Mintel, who report that Mexican food is now poised to take over from Chinese as the second most popular food in Britain when it comes to ready meals. Indian cooking still holds the top spot, but it may not last. According to the food industry analysts Kantar Worldpanel, Britons spent nearly twice as much on tortillas and Mexican meal kits in 2012 than on ingredients for curries, forking over £101 million on tortillas and £67.5 million on meal kits.
The number of Mexican restaurants is also increasing as well, with the chain Chimichanga opening 17 new outlets in 18 months, bringing its total to 37. Benito’s Hat now has six branches in London, with another due in late summer.
Foodies and lovers of authentic Mexican cuisine are likely to snub their noses at the idea that such chains offer true Mexican cooking, but Torres sees it as the beginning of bigger trend. “Mexican food is the next hot item. It’s only just started to take off. We still have a long way to go.”
But not everyone agrees that the UK’s hunger for Mexican cooking will satiate the country’s fickle consumer palate.
“It’s relatively easy to get the English consumer to try a new product once, then they’ll nip back to usual, fish and chips or a burger,” says Peter Backman, a food market analyst with Horizons FS Limited.
“In the UK, Indian food fills the same niche as Mexican does in the US: a meat base stirred up in spicy sauce. Indian is so dominant here that overshadows all other ethnic cooking and that’s not likely to change.”
For Backman a more important trend is toward health-conscious, freshly prepared meals. “And let’s face it, most available Mexican doesn’t tick that box, “he says.
But Torres sees potential well beyond the UK and hopes to soon extend MexGrocer’s reach far into Europe. “We want a franchise in every European country,” she says. So far, they’ve established one in Norway and are looking for other opportunities on the continent.
“We want our clients to feel they can contact us easily and in their own language,” says Torres, adding that part of MexGrocer’s success is based on its client-friendly service. “We’re really like a small Mexican supermarket. People call us for advice about recipes, ingredients, even menu plans for a Mexican dinner. For us it’s personal. That’s who we are.”
CG Randall is a is a freelance journalist based in London
Hasta la próxima!