There were lots of bean burgers.
Nando's Supergreen burger. Photo courtesy Nando's.
As someone who worked at FHM (rest in peace, sweet baby) circa 2010 and lived, breathed, and wheezed my way through the absolute apex of the Nando's zeitgeist; I can confidently confirm that the casual dining chain is truly the greatest food PR success story of our time.
These were the early #content days. A halcyon time before Example folded his shutter shades for the last time and Nick Clegg went down with the trumpets. In the epoch that we can now call Peak Cheeky Nando's, innocents were getting chickens tattooed on their arses for black cards (no deal, btw) and Ed Sheeran was riffin' and twangin' about how much he <3 Nando's. (See: this YouTube video from 2011 that I still find genuinely quite triggering.)
FHM might now be lining cat litter trays, but Stormzy, Dele Alli, Anthony Joshua, and Niall Horan are just a few of the 2017 influencers happy to carry on the Nando's legacy, proselytising its magic and offering this mega brand new press angles every day.
Given all this, I can't fathom why the Nando's marketing team would solicit an opinion on their newly launched menu from a culturally insignificant little squirt like me. But the opportunity comes my way to try a range of new Nando's dishes at their test kitchen in Putney and, being a professional lard-arse, I graciously accept.
I arrive at the kitchen and am greeted by Rob and a couple of others from the Nando's PR team, who immediately take me to have a go at making my own hot sauce.
"It's exactly the same as the one in the bottle," Rob enthuses, as I begin chopping the pile of chillies in front of me. I'm not sure that it is, but everyone's humouring me and we're having nice old chat.
After the sauce-making exercise, I'm taken to meet the man who designs all the Nando's menus. We get off to a rocky start, pole-vaulting over a question about PERi-PERi sauce and the Portuguese occupation of the Africas, and cutting straight to the saucy stuff. "I feel younger when I am in Nando's!" he tells me. "It's like crack! If I go a few days without it, I need my Nando's fix."
As I nod mutely, he says: "The thing about the Nando's sauce is it creates something special. Chili's not just a taste, it's a feeling."
To work up an appetite and get myself feeling suitably " chili," we go for a wander around the rest of the test kitchen. I ask where all the food is, as there doesn't seem to be much around. Nando's creates its famous Spicy Rice using rice from a company that specialises in Indian and Thai rice products. I also find out that some of the chicken comes from a company called Cargill. It's barn-reared to UK Red Tractor standards, but I'm not offered much more information about its lifestyle.
I don't know where I am headed with this line of questioning. If the public found out that Nando's chicken was waterboarded and played heavy metal music until it threw itself face-down onto the grill, I don't suppose that it would diminish anyone's enthusiasm for the brand. Plus, who do I think I am, Fiona Bruce? I stop my questions and get on with what I have actually been generously invited to do here, which is stuff my face with chicken.
First I try an edamame bean burger from the new menu. The new chicken pita is nice too—always comforting to feel the squeak of halloumi against your teeth. I try it with some sort of onion relish. After that, there's another bean burger with mint in it, for which we almost certainly break a record for amount of time spent talking about a bean burger.
"The thing about the Nando's sauce is it creates something special. Chili's not just a taste, it's a feeling."
As I drizzle spicy olive oil onto my third burger of the day, I find myself thinking, "Yeah, this is pleasant." I don't feel compelled to pull a pair of maracas from my back pocket and start creating viral content, but it's lunchtime and I am making good headway.
After our tasting session, Rob begins telling me about all the tomfoolery and horseplay that happens in Nando's restaurants. (Sometimes employees send Nando's HQ videos of themselves salsa dancing in the toilets.)
Then there are all the "amazing" menu hacks that customers think up. When I google this later on, I find a 21-strong Buzzfeed listicle of Nando's hacks, including "Order Spicy Rice and Macho Peas and mix them together for instant rice and peas!" and "You can buy a lot of Nando's stuff from the supermarket."
"It's not something we ask our customers to do," explains Rob. "They just love Nando's so they do it anyway."
All semi-fanatical brand bonhomie sort of gives me the willies. It reminds me that there was once a pre-#content time when toilet paper didn't have a Facebook account and "32 times Tesco and Sainsbury's had hilarious Twitter beef" wasn't a news story. This was the dawn of the age of cheeky chappy copywriting that has now become so pervasive that life can feel like one long uni halls kitchen party in Freshers Week.
More contemporary people than me are probably quite chill with brands attempting to be their best mate. Over the years, we've become happy to count down the Dolmio days to Sunday Brunch. In these turbulent times, people do really form meaningful and culturally significant relationships with bakeries and Monzo cards.
That said, Nando's hasn't captured hearts and minds for absolutely no reason. Maybe in an age when (uh oh, she's trying to intellectualise Nando's, guys) pubs and nightclubs are closing and more of our social interactions happen through screens, the idea of grown men razzing around a restaurant expressing their creativity via the medium of garlic bread and fizzy drink cocktails is completely adorable.
I'll probably never close my eyes and harmonise along to a song about a not-very-cheap pita bread that tastes a tiny bit like the inside of a microwave, but even I can't deny that it's simultaneously cute and bizarre that a chicken chain has given people so much life.
I say my goodbyes to the Nando's team and clink along Putney High Street, my bag brimming with cold bean burgers and bottles of hot sauce. "Your place or mine?" the paper bag asks me cheekily. I wonder whether, if I was feeling particularly lonely, this might cheer me up. I reckon it would probably just send me over the edge
"Mine!" I resolve and use my greasy thumb to conjure an Uber. As payment for making his Prius stink of cold chip fat, I offer my driver some hot sauce.
"Ah Nando's," he says, grinning. "My wife says she is stronger than me when she has hot sauce, because I'm only lemon herb."
Oh for God's sake, well done Nando's. You win again.