There are tacos and there are tacos, and these – lean, juicy and authentic – are served by probably the most qualified Mexican chef in London. While entrepreneur Sol Negron has been producing food acclaimed by the likes of Jamie Oliver, she's also been honing her business skills with an MBA at London's Cass Business School.
"When I came to the UK from Texas, Mexican food just wasn't Mexican – it was the English version. I thought, 'I just can't stay here,'" Negron, a qualified architect, explains. A mix of homesickness and love of cooking led her to set up Toma Mexicano in her spare time – food that soon pulled in a faithful following at her stall in London's Broadway Market. When she regularly sold out even during a hard, snowy winter, Negron realised she had a going concern. She even flew her mum out to lend a hand during Christmas serving up seasonal tamales – meat dumplings – which were a sell-out.
"It just mushroomed," Negron says. "It was instinctive – I saw a clear gap and just knew how to fill it. I thought people just didn't know what they were missing." She sheepishly admits her recipes are not her own – she's plundered her mother's original dishes. "I'd like to say I created them, but I didn't. I love to see people taste something authentic. I thought, 'I'm going to do this exactly the way we do back home, without Westernising any flavours or methods.' And when I can, I convert the odd vegetarian."
Brought up in Mexico and then in Dallas from her mid-teens onwards, Negron was, by her own admission, a troubled youth. A stint with the US Coast Guard set her on track and spurred her on to begin an architecture degree at the age of 26. After moving to London with her partner and starting her business, investors approached Negron at her stall with a plan to open a restaurant. "I thought, 'What are you talking about; I design buildings?'" Negron had long pondered the idea of an MBA and it now seemed a logical step. "Cass really hit the bill for me, with its entrepreneurial focus." Staff immediately saw her potential. "It's unusual to see such entrepreneurial flair in a candidate," says Dr Sionade Robinson, who interviewed her. "We often see people who say they want to run their own business – but start off with investment banking. She was definitely committed and wanted to be educated in the business process."
That's not to say Negron didn't question herself during the year. "I had doubts about whether I'd made the right choice – everybody did. Had I let my ego get the better of me?" Some effective mentoring from staff, and support from her cohort buoyed her up. She met her partner – a banker – also on the MBA, who's now heavily involved in plans for the restaurant.
Bowing under the pressure of a full-time course, Negron scaled back her food production. "We have loyal customers and a small Twitter following – you can't just let it go. So we've done boutique events every couple of months – things like book festivals, where customers really want to savour the food experience."
When the MBA led Negron and class mates to Las Vegas as part of a strategic marketing elective, she was at pains to squeeze the most out of her trip. "Students have pretty packed days," remembers Robinson. "But Sol was going out gathering extra information on the hospitality industry in her spare time, looking at different restaurant concepts, interviewing teams."
It was only when Negron wrote her thesis – a business plan for her future restaurant – that she realised what she'd learned. "If you'd asked me halfway through the course, I'd have said I'd learnt more from the raw experience of setting up the stall. But it didn't really hit me until I came to write my thesis. I was able to pull from all my MBA courses things I hadn't had a clue about previously."
She's also learned to access the right funding models to create a viable plan, how to run the management side and to position herself in a crowded market place, says Dr Robinson. Negron has a clear vision of her new venture. "One of my biggest compliments when I serve food is to hear, 'This is what I remember when I went to Mexico.' That's exactly what I'm trying to achieve."