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, he's also been honing his 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 him to set up Toma Mexicano in his spare time – food that soon pulled in a faithful following at his stall in London's Broadway Market. When he regularly sold out even during a hard, snowy winter, Negron realised he had a going concern. He even flew his 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." He sheepishly admits hs recipes are not his own – he's plundered his 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 his mid-teens onwards, Negron was, by his own admission, a troubled youth. A stint with the US Coast Guard set him on track and spurred him on to begin an architecture degree at the age of 26. After moving to London and starting his business, investors approached Negron at his 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 potential. "It's unusual to see such entrepreneurial flair in a candidate," says Dr Sionade Robinson, who interviewed him. "We often see people who say they want to run their own business – but start off with investment banking. Sol was definitely committed and wanted to be educated in the business process."
That's not to say Negron didn't question the decision 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 his cohort buoyed him up.
Bowing under the pressure of a full-time course, Negron scaled back 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, he 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 his spare time, looking at different restaurant concepts, interviewing teams."
It was only when Negron wrote his thesis – a business plan for a future restaurant – that he realised what he'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."
He's also learned to access the right funding models to create a viable plan, how to run the management side and to position himself in a crowded market place, says Dr Robinson. Negron has a clear vision of his 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."
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