The new year ushers in a slew of media predictions on what we can expect from the world of eating out (Restaurant being no exception), but for a really good steer on what the next 12 months might bring you could do worse than hang around with Mark Selby and Thomasina Miers.
The Wahaca founders have been at the vanguard of practically every popular restaurant movement of the past five years – with the exception of burgers, maybe – in many cases kick-starting the trend altogether. No bookings? Their début Covent Garden site was doing that back in 2007. Street food? Ditto. The same goes for sharing plates, taking sustainability seriously and not having a cookie-cutter approach to sites. And what of new drink-of-the-moment, mezcal? Wahaca launched the UK’s first bar dedicated to the Mexican spirit last year, of course.
Yet, somewhat surprisingly, the pair rarely get the credit they deserve for their forward thinking, most likely because they were so far ahead of the curve in many instances. When Miers and Selby launched Wahaca five-and-a-half years ago the closest thing most Londoners got to traditionalMexican food was that being served by Tex-Mex chain Chiquito. The burrito bar explosion was also yet to happen; Barburrito in Manchester had been in existence since 2005, but London was playing catch-up. And its no-bookings stance was before the rise of the Twittering foodie class, meaning operators later to that party got most of the credit. As for street food, that still meant a burger van at a car-boot sale to the majority.
“I first went to Mexico when I was 18, and then when I went back 10 years later still no one was making Mexican food in London as far as I could see,” says Miers. “There was one stall in Portobello doing something similar to the real thing, but no street food to talk of. But it seemed completely right. I kept coming back to the fact that the pleasure I personally took from eating around the street stalls in Mexico City couldn’t be exclusive to me and I felt that people would get it in the end.”
With a group of eight successful restaurants, Miers’ instincts have proven to be sound. Yet the pair admit some of their other early approaches were built on less sturdy foundations. “We went to Mexico in February 2006 and it took until July 2007 to find a site,” says Selby. “We opened the doors and didn’t really know what we were doing. There was no business plan; we just worked out how much money we needed for the first month. On the first day of trading we had to close within 20 minutes because of a flooded kitchen. When we devised the menu we didn’t say ‘right, we’re going to do sharing’. We cooked off all the food Tommi had developed and tested it – we didn’t know how much people would be ordering of what.”
As for not taking bookings: “From our pricing policy we had to do that, as we wanted a price that worked for everyone. But because of the rent we couldn’t take one-and-a-half bookings a night and make any money.”
If the early days of Wahaca had exclusively set the tone for the future of the business it might have been a different story. The first day’s flood notwithstanding, Covent Garden didn’t get off to a smooth start. “We had 30 members of staff (the restaurant now employs 85) and people were queuing for an hour-and-a-half and waiting another hour for the food,” says Selby. “We had seven staff in the kitchen trying to feed 150 people.” The pair eventually closed a third of the restaurant so they could retrain more staff.
“People queued and then came down and saw part of the restaurant empty and were really cross. It was pretty much 50/50 whether you would get a good meal experience in the first month.”
“I’d developed all the recipes in my tiny kitchen in Shepherd’s Bush and we were having to double and treble them every other day,” adds Miers. “Mark’s front-of-house experience was zero, and I’d only spent six months working at Petersham Nurseries [in Richmond]. My parents came in the first few weeks and said ‘Darling, the food’s not very good here’.”
Rather than hampering future progress, however, these early problems galvanised the pair and set the tone for how they would grow the business. “At the start it was like ‘Fuck, what do we do?’ admits Selby. “The guys at Byron and Côte had all done restaurants for a long time so at the beginning they would say ‘This is what we’re doing this is how it’s going to work’. But because of the early issues we’re not afraid of trying new stuff. It’s probably not the most sensible long-term approach but it has made us start all these different ways of doing stuff.”
Pushing the boundaries
Six years on, Wahaca’s approach might seem more prosaic given the ubiquity of no-booking, small plate restaurants, but its owners still attempt to push the envelope where possible. Its fourth site, in Soho, put sustainability at its core in a way most restaurants hadn’t done before, incorporating a water-efficient shower to encourage staff to cycle to work and two waste rooms for recycling its oil, glass, food and cardboard. The restaurant also continued Wahaca’s work in the ethical sourcing of sustainable and local produce, something which has been close to Miers’ heart since the outset.
“I was terrorised at the beginning for doing Mexican food because I was a Slow Food committee member and was worried about launching into a business that relied on shipping ingredients from across the world,” she says.
“One thing that appealed to me was the idea that it’s possible to use substitutes. We used to get shirty emails from people saying ‘Why are you using feta cheese – it’s supposed to be Mexican?’ but you don’t have to fly ingredients in from Mexico to be a Mexican restaurant. From the beginning we wanted to be sustainable. I remember lecturing the poor staff, telling them to think of their grandchildren.”
The Soho site later became the focal point for one of the UK’s biggest tequila selections, with the launch of its downstairs Azulito Bar, home to some 80 different variants of the spirit – an aspect that has been carried on at Wahaca’s newest site on Charlotte Street in London’s Fitzrovia, where the aforementioned mezcal bar is housed.
The Charlotte Street site is also a clear indicator of Wahaca’s intent on being a brand that’s going places. The former Bertorelli site was initially bought by the Marlon Abela Restaurant Corporation (MARC) before Wahaca snapped it up for a premium of £1m, some £150,000 more than MARC initially paid for it. Wahaca beat off stiff competition for the 145-cover site, including high-end steak outfit Hawksmoor, and with rents and fit-out costs on top of that, it’s a hefty figure to pay back. While the return on investment might have been relatively speedy for Hawksmoor, where average spend is £50-plus, Wahaca’s spend per head across the business is just £13.
The way the company is funded enables it to make what seem to be extravagant purchases. As well as investments from Miers and Selby and Ask founders Adam and Sam Kaye, Wahaca’s main funds come from Capricorn Ventures, the publicity-shy company that is also behind Nando’s and for whom Selby once worked. Capricorn’s deep pockets and arm’s-length approach to its investments has meant the Mexican chain has the luxury of expanding how it sees fit.
“They’re genuinely the best investors you could have in terms of letting us get on with it,” says Selby. “It took three-and-a-half years for me to get a board meeting with them. In a traditional business funded by private equity it’s very much ‘what’s the return?’ What we follow is, ‘Do we like the site, can we get enough people there?’ Yes, there’s a long payback on £1m sites. If it’s going to be a six-year payback it doesn’t matter – in four or five years the business is going to grow, so the payback time will shrink. We’re in it for the long game.”
“If we had a bunch of venture capitalists who invested in us and wanted a particular return on their money, they would have got cross with us a long time ago,” adds Miers. “If we’d had a more cookie-cutter model we would have maybe opened 20 by now, but we’re much happier.”
Wahaca’s Southbank project is further indication that it wants to set itself apart from the competition, and has the means to do so. The temporary restaurant is made from shipping containers, cost £1m to build – the initial projection was £700,000 – and will trade for a minimum of 18 months (it opened last summer). The idea is for Miers to use it as a test kitchen for new recipes that could be rolled out across the group.
“A third of the menu is different [at Southbank],” says Miers, who develops every dish at Wahaca. “I’m always looking at dishes I’ve eaten at high-end restaurants in Mexico City and thinking how I can get them on the menu over here. Sometimes I find that it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I can change the whole menu at Southbank for an entire month if I want to – it gives us great flexibility. I’m a cook at the end of the day; if I’m not cooking, I’m not happy.”
Currently being tested are larger tacos and corn tortillas that can be assembled at the table, although sizzling plates of fajitas won’t be on the menu any time soon.
If the Southbank ‘pop-up’ sounds like an expensive toy to stretch Miers’ creative muscles, then Selby adds that, like Charlotte Street, it is a sound investment. “I have this crazy idea of putting all the containers on a boat and taking them out to New York, or we could go to Edinburgh or Aberdeen. We’ll get our money back; we haven’t wasted £1m.”
With ambition comes challenges and while its sites are impressive – Canary Wharf has 150 covers – the chain is often perceived as somewhere more suited to large group meals, where dwell time is long, than a quick lunch. With burrito chains muscling in on their act and doing a roaring lunchtime trade, Wahaca has found itself almost playing catch-up in a market it helped create.
“The burrito movement hasn’t hindered us,” asserts Selby, but he admits he covets their quick-serve style. “You only need to order one or two street-food dishes at lunch, but people have got it in their heads that they need lots to share. We sell a burrito for £6.95 with tortilla chips; that’s cheaper than Chilango and Chipotle and they are takeaway-back-to-the-office places, while we are a full-service experience. We could raise the prices of some of our dishes by one or two quid but I suppose we are trying to be greedy and have designed it so that you can have a long meal or a quick, cheap one.”
A takeaway van parked in Canary Wharf has gone some way to address this, as has the tortaria at Charlotte Street, which offers a takeaway service of tacos and burritos. In addition, Charlotte Street serves breakfast as the group looks at ways to broaden the Mexican eating occasion and sweat its assets further.
Wahaca’s comparatively low prices could also help expansion outside of London where consumers are less willing to part with the best part of a tenner for a burrito – Chilango was forced to close a site in Sheffield’s Meadowhall because it wasn’t making enough money to cover its costs. London remains the group’s immediate focus, with sites in Islington and Waterloo in the pipeline and the City under scrutiny, but within two years it will have moved further afield. “We’re constantly being asked to open in Manchester, Brighton and Bristol,” says Miers. “It will be a big education, but an exciting challenge.”
Any UK-wide expansion isn’t likely to be Byronic in pace; Wahaca has bank debt to fund growth at a rate of just two or three sites a year. Yet that doesn’t mean it won’t become a sizeable business.
“Worse-case scenario: we can be the size of Jamie’s Italian outside of London,” says Selby. “Wagamama has 25 London sites and we can at least get to 20-25 without compromising stuff, but we don’t have to do it tomorrow.”
There will be no Mexican standoff, but maybe the odd siesta between openings then.
This article first appeared in the February issue of Restaurant. Subscribe here.