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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 22 May, 2019
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What I Learned: Turning a buck as a 'born-again Mexican' in Ireland

The man behind the Little Ass Burrito Bar and Blanco Niño on the value of finding people who “give a s**t”.

Image: YouTube

WHEN PHILIP MARTIN starts talking about corn tortillas, he does it with an almost evangelical zeal.

“I do sound a bit like a born-again Mexican,” the founder of Dublin’s Little Ass Burrito Bar confesses.

But it’s the 26-year-old’s latest venture, Blanco Niño, roughly translated as “white kid”, which has been the focus of much of that near-fanaticism this year.

The business plan is deceptively simple, if left-field. To make a foodstuff native to the Americas – the corn tortilla and its derivative, the much-loved corn chip – from a factory in Co Tipperary then sell the product across Europe.

“When I originally set up my burrito bar I was initially looking at a taco bar and I discovered you can’t buy an authentic taco shell anywhere from Europe,” he told TheJournal.ie.

“When you say taco to the average person in Ireland … there is that perception that a taco’s this hard, yellow thing that doesn’t taste like much.”

To learn about the authentic product, the corn-based, soft-shell kind, Martin travelled around Mexico, visiting corn farms and seeing locals produce their tortillas, which were the base for virtually every dish from tacos to enchiladas.

He said a lot of locals were sceptical about his interest until they realised he understood the cooking process and the culture behind the product, after which they “really opened up”.

What we will be doing in our factory is quite a mixture of both worlds – we are keeping the traditional elements of the product and we are blending it with modern techniques for automating various processes. And we are able to do that at a reasonable price to make sure it’s a viable option.”

The tortillas will all be made using non-genetically modified maize and traditional methods like cooking the raw product in a limestone solution then grinding it down on volcanic stone.

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A busy year a-comin’

With production scheduled to start in March, next year is shaping up as a very busy 12 months for the food startup. Martin said Blanco Niño would start by selling direct to restaurants, bars and hotels, although the ultimate aim was to get the product to consumers in retail as well.

He said nearly 1,300 businesses in Ireland and the UK had registered interest and were waiting on samples after a successful Crowdcube campaign in which the startup raised over double its target, some £124,000 (€157,000 in today’s money), from investors.

“We actually had people who were willing to financially back the business so the purpose of the crowdfunding campaign was more to raise our profile and explain the story and tell people who good the product was going to be,” he said.

Source: Philip Martin/YouTube

Martin said the ultimate plan would be to grow corn for the product in Ireland, although for at least the first year he said the company would be sourcing the raw material from some ”sustainably focussed” farmers in both the US and Mexico.

I didn’t want to promote that we were like a third-generation Mexican family that were making tortillas. I’m simply a pasty Irish guy who really loves his Mexican food.”

The business received another boost only last week when Martin won “best new idea” and a €20,000 prize at the Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur awards, where he was supported by the Local Enterprise Office in Tipperary.

NO FEE 15 Best Young Entrepreneur Martin (right) with fellow IBYE winners Dean Gammell (left) and Eamon Keane Source: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

Martin said he expected the business would create nearly 40 jobs as it grew and the plan was to start exporting to big European countries like France and Germany by 2016.

But the million-euro question is, will Mexican restaurants in Europe really want to buy an Irish tortilla?

“I think it just comes down to myself and our team to explain what we are doing,” Martin said. ”All the trends are behind us. If you look at places like New York, San Francisco and LA, all the new products are being built on a Mexican foundation – using that kind of hand-held food.”

Tortilla Source: Blanco Niño

So what’s the secret to being a burrito tycoon?

Martin said the biggest lesson he had learned in his business career, which began when he was 21 with a pizza shop that later flopped, was the need to get the right staff and backers on board.

“The most important thing in any business is to find people who are experienced and driven and who, basically, give a shit about what you are doing,” he said.

When you are doing things by yourself, it means that you make all of the mistakes. I did it – in a way, I tried to learn everything myself when I should have delegated a lot more. You have to have people you can rely on and trust, and we have that now in both businesses.”

Martin’s Little Ass Burrito Bar recently opened in Rathmines for its second outlet and has a third scheduled for a May launch. Meanwhile, Blanco Niño has recruited some big-name directors, include former Dawn Fresh Foods chief Gerry Rafferty and former Valeo Foods financial boss Aidan O’Byrne, who sank their own money into the enterprise.

But Martin said there was no “secret formula” to running a successful business and being able to get the best people.

“It’s just a very important thing to get right and it can very easily not be done right. It’s why most businesses fall apart, I think.”

All this month, as part of TheJournal.ie’s ongoing SME focus, we will be looking back on 2014 – and throwing forward to 2015 – for the small-business sector.

Originally published at 8.ooam

READ: The Big Idea: Rethinking ice cream as junk food… And building a brand in the process >

READ: These young food entrepreneurs want to change how you think about butter >

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About the author:

Peter Bodkin  / Editor, Fora

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