Nandos, much beloved by my kids and many others, is a Portuguese-themed restaurant chain from a company specialising in peri-peri sauces.  It’s actually South African by origin, now global, and no more Portuguese than I am Ethiopian, but the concept of “flame-grilled” chicken basted in chilli sauce is clearly one that works – their restaurants are generally filled to overflowing, which from the point of view of shareholders is profitable.

In fact, the company has also invested in Clapham, owner of further chains including Gourmet Burger Kitchen and the Real Greek.  What they are selling is not food but corporate bulk-buying power and retail craft and guile, whereby the branded theme is used to derive cash at a rate of knots – and with their core brand their timing was spot on, riding the crest of a wave as the British discovered our addictive love of the tingle of chilli flavours.

A shame in the sense that what I want is the best dining experience, something I don’t believe will ever happen in a budget-driven mass market chain.  The best chicken I ever had in a restaurant was at a small place on the Kings Road in Chelsea.  They served fantastic raw materials – small but expensive genuinely free-range French Landes chickens that had a fabulous flavour, spit-roast to perfection – skin crispy, flesh moist .  That place single-handedly restored my faith in chicken, showed me just what good chicken can taste like, as opposed to the generally very bland and anonymous birds masquerading under the title in supermarkets.  However, it evidently didn’t make money since it is no longer there.  Does that make Nandos the fittest, best able to survive?

There are differences, first of which is that it operates a partial self-service system, whereupon you are shown to a table but then go to a counter to order your meal, pay in advance, and then serve yourself with drinks, cutlery, various peri-peri condiments and other peripherals.  In that sense Nandos is closer to fast food than a true restaurant, though a waitress will bring you your food and enquire whether everything is OK.

The food itself is worthy of investigation.  Firstly, the promises made on the Nando’s website:

All Nando’s chicken is Red Tractor assured, having met high standards of food safety, animal welfare and environmental protection, here in the UK. This means our chicken is not only tasty, but also happy and healthy.  As all our whole chickens are farmed in the UK, they are delivered FRESH (and never frozen) to our restaurants.

As I’ve said before, Red Tractor standards are pretty meaningless (other than guaranteeing the products are indeed British and have a proven provenance) and don’t indicate that the birds are the highest quality produced for the optimum flavour, nor do they guarantee free range or organic standards.  They do mean the facilities are clean, modern and efficient, but not much more.

Of course they are “fresh” as opposed to frozen, but they have been farmed, processed and transported from a central mass manufacture standard so are nothing like as fresh as they would be if local farms were used, for example.

To give you the great PERi-PERi-taste all our chickens are marinated for 24 hours in our natural PERi-PERi sauce. Our PERi-PERi marinade contains no preservatives, no colourants and no artificial flavours, so is totally natural and healthy.  Every chicken is grilled to order (and basted to your specific choice and taste) over an open flame, rather than fried, resulting in lower cholesterol and reduced fat content.

In fact, the chicken is processed, basted with sauce, part-cooked and vacuum-wrapped before it travel outs to the restaurant, so effectively we are talking a factory-based manufacturing process rather than a kitchen in which the chicken are lovingly prepared – though the website won’t ever tell you that this is a standardised product designed to be identical wherever it is eaten, and as such is on a par with supermarket convenience foods or boil-in-the-bag pub meals provided by the likes of Brakes Bros.

This is probably what annoys me most about chains – they disguise how their food is prepared and shipped.  I would have far greater respect if they told the whole truth, and even more respect if they allowed each franchised restaurant discretion to prepare and cook good local ingredients from scratch rather than warming up a convenience product.

Leaving that aside for a moment, did the food experience actually live up to the standards expected? The chicken itself was cooked and redolent of the bottled hot chilli sauce requested – and arguably it works because you can taste the chilli above all else.  The meat was never going to match up to Chelsea standards of flavour, but did the job.  The breast fillet burger and wrap respectively eaten by my son and daughter were also acceptable, though Adam did leave half a soggy bun – another common bugbear of mine and the fault of the American burger giants who insist on plying us with sweet, soggy bread substitute rather than the real thing.  When will a good quality crispy, tasty artisan baked roll, one with texture and flavour, be adopted as standard for these products?

The side dishes were somewhat variable: Adam’s chips were decidedly soggy too, but Lindsey seemed to enjoy her corn on the cob –  hardly difficult to cook, though, so you would worry if they got that wrong.  I chose a dry and unimpressive spicy rice, and “macho peas” that were in practice frozen garden peas laced with a minty sauce – not worth what they were asking.  On previous visits I’ve also tried a very average coleslaw among other side dishes.  The attention to quality at Nandos seems to waver and clearly could be improved with a little thought.  In short, they don’t stand out from the fast food crowd.

A word also about the drinks. Being self-service, you buy the glass and can refill on sodas or even cold water all you like.  The same bottomless cup philosophy does not apply to coffee or orange juice, for example, but you might think you’re getting your money’s worth on the unlimited refill principle.  Problem is that soft fizzy drinks are packed with noxious chemicals, colourings, preservatives and caffeine (no caffeine-free alternatives offered.)  One glass is probably OK, but by the time Adam had drunk three glasses in rapid succession he was bouncing off the walls (it made me wonder whether they still included cocaine in Coca-Cola – apparently no longer!)  This may be convenient for Nandos though I consider it irresponsible, given that it is difficult for parents to manage the intake of smaller children in the restaurant.

For a modest lunch this was not particularly cheap, and arguably the quality was more on a par with the fast food market than more aspiring chains and restaurants.  But again, since they attract punters by the thousand they would argue that the price points are spot on, and well below comparable chains with which Nandos competes.  For example, in the same row of restaurants in Braintree, Chimichanga seemed notably more expensive and notably emptier by comparison – maybe they are looking for a wealthier clientele market segment?

So, Nandos is probably better than many such restaurants, and undoubtedly has the benefit of being fairly unique, though it could undoubtedly do better.  But then why, they would say, change a successful formula?  It is essentially just a brand that knows its market, so smoke and mirrors are what matter most for success.  My plea would be simple: keep the bulk-buying benefits of chaindom, but make each restaurant unique and individual, make it behave like a micro-enterprise in its own right, serving food based on local demand and moving faster than a corporate marketing department would allow to happen.

PS.  A friend put it so much succinctly than I did:

“McKFC with pretentions! Bland and expensive for what it is.”

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