Seeking Opportunity, Taking Risks And Riding The Mexican Wave
Co-founder And Managing Director of Mex Out And Barrio, Marcus Jilla, Shares His Insights On His Restaurants’ Raving Success
Mexican cuisine have been increasingly showing up on more menus around Singapore, exposing consumers to its rich diversity of foods and flavours. Amidst this proliferating food trend, Mex Out and Barrio have been stellar stand outs and crowd favourites. The two popular Mexican restaurants serve up ‘fresh-Mex’, a casual style of cuisine modelled after American burrito chain Chipotle, known for using fresh and natural ingredients and prides itself in serving up fast, casual and most importantly authentic Mexican grub.
We uncover the genius behind the restaurants’ raving success with Marcus Jilla, the co-founder and Managing Director of Mex Out and Barrio. Leaving his well-established corporate career having worked for marketing and advertising giants such as Procter & Gamble and subsequently Ogylvy and Pernod Ricard, Marcus dove headfirst into the F&B industry, taking it by storm and has never looked back since. Here, in his own measured and thoughtful words, he shares his journey and wisdom.
How did you come to the realisation that there was a gap in the market for authentic Mexican food?
It was a two-fold realisation. Firstly, I saw that “fast-casual” dining options with a focus on food that is fresh and reasonably healthy, was starting to take off in Singapore. This was the type of thing I wanted to eat for lunch on a work day and it seemed other people did too, with options like Salad Stop, Soup Spoon and Cedele popping up everywhere serving up cool, fresh, and good food. The same thing had happened in Australia a few years before that, and fresh, quick Mexican food was a big part of that, but the Mexican bit hadn’t come to Singapore’s new food trend yet – so the time seemed ripe.
Also, the idea was never to stop at Singapore but to do what had been done in the USA, UK and Australia in terms of a Mexican “revival” across various markets in Asia. I was already living in Singapore, and it seemed like a good starting point – the aim has always been to prove the market and proposition here first, then eventually expand to other countries.
How difficult was it to take the plunge to leave you stable corporate career and venture into uncertainty of a new business?
To be honest it was not that hard. I had always had a sense I wasn’t cut out for major corporations, and I’ve always had a stomach for risk. I was bored sitting behind a desk in a huge corporate structure. It didn’t feel like a risk to me – the bigger risk seemed to be spending another 10 years not trying to create something on my own, succeeding or failing in the process. I’m a big believer that it’s a natural desire for man to create his or her own destiny, so it fit. If anything, I wish I’d done it sooner. Of course there are the days I long for stability and a good night’s sleep but I don’t think going back to that would keep me interested for long.
Often times, people tend to be cautious about going into business with friends yet you’ve succeeded with two of yours. What is it about your partnership with Jared Goldberg and Robert Kindler that stands out and has contributed to the success of your company?
It’s true what they say and it’s not easy. Going into business with friends puts a whole other angle on the relationship which can make or break the relationship. It’s instrumental to have the support of other people to talk things through with – to know when you’re on the right track or have someone highlight when maybe you’re not. Otherwise it can be quite a lonely road.
We started out the business basically tag-teaming everything as a trio. We made all decisions together, and we were all moonlighting working on our first store while we retained our “day-jobs”. When it came time for the business to grow and take a step forward, I realised someone needed to take a full-time plunge and volunteered to take on the risk. Since then, the other guys have taken a step back and I take all day to day decisions myself and with my own small but growing team. But they are always there to support when it comes to major questions or issues and having that additional perspective and final escalation point is helpful as can either reinforce the decisions I’m making, or cause me to re-think them.
Having no prior experience in the F&B industry, what were some of the main challenges you had to overcome?
Coming from a corporate background, the thing you are struck by is the realisation that everything is in the details and there are too many of them for one person to even get their head around. In any given restaurant, you have hundreds of customer interactions in one day and optimal customer service requires you to factor in everything how they are greeted, how long their food takes to be served, how it’s presented and down to the nitty-gritty details like whether they have enough ice in their drink. Customer satisfaction reflects on your brand reputation and this is a really tough area to manage well that I still haven’t entirely figured out.
With so many customer touchpoints, inevitably, you have to cede control to your staff because you can’t do it all yourself. To keep staff motivation levels consistently high is yet another major challenge. This is further exacerbated by the current labour market situation in Singapore, which is making things very tough for F&B operators. From hiring quality people, to retain them, and to motivate them to do their best, it is no mean feat.
Since embarking on your business venture, what do you think were some of the key principles and philosophy that you have live by to help guide your decision-making process?
It honestly changes day by day but I think a few of them are: always stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone, and don’t be afraid to take risks. Beyond that, I have realised more and more the importance of people – more brains are always better than less and everyone has a different approach to work and problem solving – and of communication, both upwards and downwards. Unfortunately, the latter is something I’m not always good at (I tend to like to solve problems myself rather than seeking support or consensus, which isn’t always the best approach) and is the thing I need to work on the most as a leader.
Lastly, I think it’s important to always use your long term goals as a starting point – where do you want to be in two to three years and work back from there. That’s really important as it forms a kind of “compass” which can inform all of your decisions, help you prioritise.
In this age where consumers are increasingly becoming more health and environmentally conscious, could you expound further how your company has gone about catering to this growing demand?
Though especially difficult to achieve in Singapore where nothing really grows locally, we are always looking to improve our sourcing and processes to ensure food is fresher and more consistent, and also I think trying increasingly to use health as a key driver. I want people to go from thinking of us as purely “Mexican” food to “a healthy and hearty dining option with a unique – Mexican – twist”. In fact, with grilled and braised proteins, lots of black beans for fibre, guacamole for healthy fats, a lot of gluten-free carb options and a bunch of vegetarian-friendly meals, Mexican can be a really healthy and appealing option.
In terms of being environmentally friendly, this is something we’re still in the infancy of toying with how to achieve but I do see it as increasingly something consumers want. I’ll be honest, the infrastructure around recycling and recyclables is not great in Singapore nor are the economics around it. Another thing with regards to both health as well as environmental sensibilities which is becoming more prevalent across countries is a move away from meat. To cater to these changing preferences, we pride ourselves on having a lot of delicious and nutritionally balanced vegetarian food – high in good fat and protein to satiate people’s stomachs. That’s something we’ll definitely be placing more focus on going forward.
As more players enter the market and Mexican restaurants continue popping up around Singapore, how do you aim to continue to set yourself apart and stay ahead of the game?
In terms of the increasing amount of players in the Mexican space I don’t see it as competition. We haven’t reached a saturation point where we’re vying between each other for market share, we can actually all work together to grow the entire pie. Mexican is sometimes seen as such a niche proposition still in Singapore and it shouldn’t be. The more Mexican options arrive, the more people are exposed and receptive to it, the more people will slot it in to their weekly dining habit. We can all thrive together and push the envelope rather than compete amongst each other.