When Carlos Anderson was 25 years old, his hot dog and taco chain in Mexico City went bankrupt. Mr. Anderson hot-footed it out of town, avoiding his creditors.
Today, Mr. Anderson is the undisputed Enchilada King of Mexico. His company, Central Anderson's SA, operates 37 full-service restaurants in Mexico and the United States and expects to open up 8 more of them by the end of the year. Mr. Anderson says the credit card companies tell him he runs the largest full-service restaurant chain in Mexico. Even by US standards, a spokesman for a US restaurant chaind says, the Anderson chain would be large. (Since the company is privately held, it doesn't disclose financial results.)
Lotte Mendelsohn, a radio commentator for the popular station XEVIP in Mexico City, calls Mr. Anderson "canny and charming." She notes, "He's a real showman." And Michael G. Taylor, president of Textiles Morelos and Nobilis Lees in Mexico City, subsidiaries of Burlington Industries, says that what makes Mr. Anderson's restaurants successful is their ability to attract the growing Mexican middle class.
Although the bulk of the eating establishments are in Mexico, Mr. Anderson and his partner, Charlie Skipsey, have also expanded to the US, Spain, and Brazil. In the future, Mr. Anderson says he will open up a restaurant in Macao, where, he says, "We just hope to get back the price of our plane tickets."
Anderson's US forays have met with mixed success. In Los Angeles, Tiburon, and San Mateo, Calif., the restaurants fill up their parking lots. But an attempt to establish an eatery in Dallas fell flat and the restaurant closed quickly. Looking back on the Dallas experience, Mr. Anderson says he knew before the restaurant opened that it wouldn't succeed. "I really should have said that things were wrong," he comments; "it was a study in errors. The location was wrong, and the management team didn't grasp the way we do business." He adds, however, that "the mortality rate of restaurants in Dallas is huge."
Most of the Anderson restaurants don't fail. This is in large part because of a unique management technique which Anderson calls "owner's eyes." He explains, "When the owner of a restaurant looks at a table, he notices there is no salt shaker; when an employee looks at the table, he doesn't notice it." Thus , he gives a share of the profits to many of the employees who don't get tips. The maitre d', bartenders, and cooks all benefit if the restaurant is a success.
Anderson says that no two deals he makes are the same. But generally, he says, "We seldom build new restaurants; we buy bankrupt restaurants and repackage them." Then he lines up bank financing for the new enterprise and finds new management from among his previous successes. The waiters and management often speak excellent English, since they were educated at private schools in the US.
"There are a lot of kids whose fathers are lawyers, doctors, or businessmen who are not day people and their parents don't understand that. But I put them to work at my restaurants and they are great, since they have sat on the other side of the table enough to know what good service is." (For those curious, Mr. Anderson's father was American; his mother, Mexican. He founded his first restaurant, "Si Como No," when he was 18.)
Another reason his restaurants have been successful is that they are mostly in vacation spots. He has three restaurant-discos in Acapulco; four establishments in Mazatlan; and two restaurants in Cuernavaca. He also has restaurants in Cozumel, Cancun, and Tijuana. "When people are on vacation," he says, "they are more relaxed, so we are not dealing with people who are rushing off." He still owns El Shrimp Bucket in Mazatlan, which was his first restaurant after the bankruptcy in Mexico City. (The profits from the Shrimp Bucket allowed him to pay off his creditors after six years adn return to Mexico City to set up Anderson's).
Because of the large number of tourists he caters to, he serves only bottled water at the tables and coats his water tanks with "microdyne," a water purifier. A doctor is on the staff, travelling to the restaurants to check on water and health standards.
There is also little doubt that the interiors of the restaurants are unique. They often give the appearance of a warehouse, since there is an accumulation of artifacts of questionable ancestry scattered thoughout them. Glued to the ceiling is a collage of hats. On the walls are posters and cartoons.
The menu itself encourages the dinner to "Demand your rights -- good-naturedly. When you need something -- psst, click, clap, snap, speak, wave." The menu also offers suggestions on what to order. Under Angulas Bilbaina, the menu warns the customer: "Baby eels boiled in olive oil with garlic. Don't order unless you are Spanish enough not to need this explanation sheet." And some of the dishes, such as "Pollo Coca-Cola" (Chicken and Coke), don't need a whole lot of explaining. Prices are moderate by New York standards.
Generally, the food is satisfying, and at his restaurant called Tecamacharlie's, in a residential suburb of Mexico City, it might even inspire food critics. "We take our food seriously," Mr. Anderson says. Lotte Mendelsohn of Radio XEVIP calls the food "generally good but not superb."
Food is not the only drawing card for the restaurants. People go to them to have a good time and be seen. There is even a rumor that Henry Kissinger has stood in line outside Carlos'n Charlie's in Acapulco waiting to get in. (None of the restaurants take reservations.) And Miss Mendelsohn says that Anderson's, the flagship restaurant in Mexico City, has become a big nighttime spot for singles. During the day, employees from the nearby US Embassy mingle with Citibank's debonair banking staff as they feast on a potent ceviche. For Carlos Anderson, it's a long way from "Si Como No."