head shotWhen Brandon Stephens ’85 graduated from London Business School he had an idea for a quality Mexican restaurant, a business plan, zero experience in the food service industry, a mountain of student debt, and a thin network of local British contacts. Despite the demanding challenge ahead of him, Brandon started assembling the ingredients to launch his first restaurant, Tortilla, a California-style Mexican restaurant specializing in burritos.

“At the beginning it was terrifying,” said Brandon about the prospect of building his business from the ground up. “And in hindsight somewhat foolhardy. So it becomes a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, keeping your head down, and not looking at the fact that there are cliffs all around you.”

Thankfully Brandon had a lot of help from his friends, who connected him to lawyers, accountants, recruiters, builders, and a host of other key players. Because he had no prior professional experience with the restaurant industry, Brandon knew he had to build a solid team of experts if his venture was going to work.

In spite of the looming uncertainty ahead, Brandon was also motivated by the philosophy that failure was not an option.

“The implications of it not working — financially, professionally, personally — were so daunting that you just have to keep plodding away. It was about not looking too far ahead or reflecting too much on how far we’ve come. It was just focusing on doing things one day at a time.”

The idea for Tortilla came from four years of fruitlessly searching London with his wife to find proper burritos and tacos, a staple they missed from their growing-up years frequenting the taquerias of San Francisco’s Mission District. Two years after finishing business school, Brandon and his wife finally introduced Londoners to Tortilla, which has since opened in 26 different locations across the UK to become Europe’s largest fast-casual Mexican chain and Zagat’s “Best Mexican Restaurant in London.”

Brandon learned a lot through this process, not the least of which was the realization that building a business is a marathon, not a sprint. He’s also learned the importance of delegating and letting go in order to grow his business. Up until May 2014, Brandon was the managing director of Tortilla, but he decided to hire a seasoned restaurateur to handle daily operations instead. Part of this decision came from Brandon’s realization that he’s less of a restaurant guy and more of an entrepreneur, which he traces to his years spent at Nueva.

“The independence and self-starter mentality that Nueva promotes is a mindset that lends itself to entrepreneurialism. It’s about positive encouragement to find something of interest and develop it, whether that’s in art, or mock town, or doing deals in Model UN. All of these experiences create a freedom of thought that breaks down the usual barriers that cause a lot of people to say ‘well, it’s just too hard, and there’s too much uncertainty.’”

Other Nueva experiences Brandon remembers fondly include visiting Bar 717, playing moonball, racing to board the South Bay bus first, playing in piano ensembles, and memorizing the first 74 number of pi on the pi poster wrapped around the math classroom.

What makes Tortilla stand out in London?

“It’s no different for any halfway decent restaurant — the food, service, and ambience. It’s also great value for money — £5 for a medium burrito. The British public is relatively open to new cuisine but the Mexican food that was in London ten years ago was dire. So it was about presenting something with a bit better quality and educating them on burritos.”



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