MCA’s October 2016 report Branded South American/Mexican cuisine market analysis, estimated turnover of the branded Mexican restaurant sector at £289.2m by December, from a total of 255 outlets. Indeed, there cannot be many people left who have never heard of burritos, tacos and guacamole - everyone from pub companies to fast food chains have even put them (or, purists would argue, a loosely-based version of them similar in name only) on their menus.

The study suggested that first fevered rush of openings is beginning to slow, albeit ever so slightly. Annual growth in terms of physical restaurant numbers was 9% compared to 10.4% in 2015 and 17.1% in 2014, with overall sales increasing 9.7% year-on-year to December 2016 against 12.4% in December 2015 and 10.8% the previous year. Several start-ups have been and gone and some firms have closed sites that, as happens time and again in the restaurant industry, they have rushed to grab in the race to build a recognisable branded estate only to find, in hindsight, they have paid too much for to ever make profitable.

Aside from this, the sector is now a permanent fixture in the UK restaurant scene and, being a relative newcomer, still has huge potential for expansion. The fast casual sub-segment, in particular burrito bars with their relatively low price point and capex requirements, is best-placed to action this.

A number of such operators have reached a critical mass and are on the brink of moving up to the next stage of becoming significant national groups. In the early days all eyes were on Chipotle Mexican Grill, the American giant, but its UK expansion has so far amounted to just six sites now in London where it closed its Wimbledon operation last year. Paris seems to be the current focus for its attention. Quilvest-owned Tortilla is the largest UK burrito chain, with 32 sites (plus one in Dubai) and ambitions to grow to50-plus, helped by a number of recent board appointments. Barburrito has a similar target and is also well on track, now standing at 19 outlets. Chilango raised £3.4m via crowd funding just over a year ago to help it expand to 50 sites too (across 20 cities by 2021), and currently has 13 open. Others include Mission Burrito, now at 10 sites and expanding; Poncho8, backed by MSG Group, which has six outlets and has previously stated plans to grow to 25-plus across the UK; the also six-strong Benito’s Hat, which is veering more towards a table service format and plans three to four openings a year, plus a myriad of smaller operators like Burrito Kitchen and Go Burrito.

So whatever happens with Donald Trump’s infamous border wall plans, the influence of Mexico, particularly in the shape of fast casual burrito bars, is here to stay and the sector looks set for expansion for many years to come.

Someone who has always been ahead of this curve is Morgan Davies, founder of Barburrito, who lays credible claim to being a pioneer in this segment, having effectively opened the UK’s first burrito bar as part of a ‘global food’ delivery firm he ran in Manchester in 2003. The first standalone Barburrito launched in the city in 2005, so he now has more than 10 years’ experience in this field and his company has sold well over 5 million burritos.

His business has almost doubled in the past 18 months, from 10 outlets to 19 in nine cities. This level was achieved faster than Davies had ever anticipated thanks to the £4.38m November 2015 acquisition of the five-strong Pinto Mexican Kitchen business in Scotland, followed by further openings in Newcastle, Aberdeen and Edinburgh in the last quarter of 2016. Total annual sales are now around £14m, with double digit like-for-like sales growth in the core estate (helped, Davies says, by the brand’s commitment to investing in training to ensure consistency of service across the group) and the firm employs more than 330 staff. The reopening of Barburrito’s Paddington operation in London and a new site in the Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield will take the business to 21 sites by the end of Spring, with another shopping centre operation slated for Derby and a couple of other sites in the pipeline, including one in London. The medium-term target is for a further five in the 12 months after these.

He feels very comfortable with the rate of expansion planned for his company, which has backing from the Business Growth Fund to take it to circa 25 outlets, and feels no pressure to take questionable sites for the sake of gaining a foothold in any location.

“I like to say we started this great burrito race,” he says. “I now see it as a marathon, not a sprint and we are in this for the long-term.

“The thing about burritos is we are not an extension of an existing category like, say, barbecue or premium burgers or sourdough pizzas. We are all growing a national food category.”

He adds that burritos tie in with most of the long-term food trends, further cementing their place in the market.

“When I first started out, it was very difficult because people would come through the door and we had to explain what we were and they weren’t necessarily ready for this type of food – for example guacamole used to be a really insignificant part of sales but now it is a big part of the UK palate.

“And the opportunities are getting even better because people are getting into healthier eating and personalisation. We do wrestle with how to communicate this to the customer but you can be on any diet and eat burritos - vegan, high protein, you name it - because you can have your burrito any way you want and it is all freshly-prepared.”

Davies is very clear in his aim to maintain Barburrito’s position as one of the few leading operators that he believes will emerge from the next period of activity in this category.

“This sector will go though consolidation and it will boil down to two or three key brands and we want to be one of those. But our aim is to become the best-loved burrito business in the UK - there are plenty of big restaurant businesses I don’t aim to be.

“There is no-one else in the sector I would see as a suitable acquisition target [for us], but I am sure some of the private equity guys look at our business as a merger possibility. It feels like the business has become more manageable as we have got through that tricky in-between bit where you are growing but can’t afford to have a proper management team - which is why the big chains don’t set up new brands very often, they tend to acquire others that have hit that point of stability.”

As Davies has previously stated, he firmly believes Barburrito has the capability to become a 50-site business, backed up by its success operating in the regions as well as London, and in a variety of locations from high street, to student-led, to shopping centre and travel.

He acknowledges the minefield of unknowns that can affect performance and have a constant impact on that ever-changing equation between sales and profitability, Brexit included, but with over a decade of operating burrito bars under his belt, Davies feels he is in a good position to tackle these. Especially as the business has already weathered the last major financial storm.

“In the last recession our sales grew because people were trading down from the full dining experience and, while at £7 we are more expensive than making your own packed lunch, we are not that much more so,” he says.

Davies recognises, too, that “the business will look very different in three years’ time to how it does today”, but says he has built in the flexibility to enable it to get to that stage as smoothly as possible. Barburrito now has a ‘support centre’ (the term ‘head office’ is banned), above one of its shops in Manchester, and has a strong board and operational team to see it through the next three years. He is in the process of looking at the company’s funding strategy for the next period of expansion and says his inherent impatience to take the company forward is tempered by the board keeping him focussed on sticking to the core business. Davies says in the past he has toyed with the idea of franchising and international openings, but these thoughts are well and truly on the back burner. He has, however,“tinkered around the edges” with the concept since the beginning and, although the products, service and menu are constantly reviewed, he believes the brand offer is pretty spot on for the foreseeable future, having introduced dessert (churros), broadened the choice of drinks and continuing to grow its delivery sales in partnership with Deliveroo. The branding has

also been modernised in the past 18 months to better reflect Barburrito’s place as a professional, pioneering and experienced operator in this sector that serves top quality food quickly, but does not take itself too seriously - communicating with the customer in a light-hearted, witty tone reflecting its independent spirit.

Tortilla is the other brand in the sector that Davies most respects and thinks will also remain as a leading player in the UK burrito bar market of the future.

Looking back, Davies feels proud to have been part of the Mexican new wave and is now feeling quite relaxed yet excited about where this will take him next.

“Let’s put it this way, I am no longer agitated about others’ new openings,” he laughs.

Of course, no one can truly predict what will happen in the future, but if his experience of the past ten years is anything to go by, there is every reason to suspect that Davies’ vision for the sector is worth noting.