Tacos on trial: How Wahaca bounced back from norovirus

By Mark Wingett

- Last updated on GMT

Wahaca's Mark Selby on life after norovirus
Mexican chain Wahaca was gearing up to celebrate 10 years of success, until it was hit by a norovirus outbreak last November, resulting in it cancelling its annual Day of the Dead festival and pulling out of a new opening. But, as co-founder Mark Selby explains, it’s coming back brighter.

I had already decided not to ask Mark Selby, co-founder of Wahaca, how life had been, safe in the knowledge that since November, life, in particular the business side, had been quite tough (putting it mildly). We would just sit down and plough on into the interview. But then he came limping towards me on crutches. “Football injury playing five-a-side, it may need surgery,” he explains. “It never rains… ”

Last October, if there had been any rain clouds hanging over Wahaca, they were only generated from the headwinds the rest of the sector were also experiencing. The company was gearing up to make its debut in Scotland – in Edinburgh – and trading for the year to that point had been “pretty good”.

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“We were like-for-like positive, but the market felt strange in that post-Brexit time,” says Selby. “Some locations were up, others down, it was a bit weird. There wasn’t even a geographical split. It was very random.”

He’d have happily settled with random, given what came next. In November, more than 300 people fell ill following a suspected outbreak of norovirus across the group​, which led to nine restaurants closing for a period. Details of the closures were covered by the majority of the national press, meaning that many of its customers were aware of the problems at Wahaca.

To further compound the issue, the company’s annual three-day Day of the Dead festival of live music and live art, street food and tequila was due start the day after the outbreak made the headlines, and the company was forced to cancel the celebrations, which had taken nine months to organise, at the 11th hour.

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This, says Selby, was a tough decision, especially given that the event was due to feature some 30 stall traders and bands who had flown over from Mexico to perform as well as host 3,500 paying festival-goers over the three days. “There were so many people involved,” says Selby. “Set designers, DJs, supper clubs,street food traders – people at the company were literally in tears at what was happening.”

But it was likely to be the right decision: even the most dull-witted of headline writers wouldn’t have failed to make mincemeat out of a restaurant group hit with a food poisoning scare aligning itself with ‘dead’ people.

“There would have been journalists looking for a story,” adds Selby. “It would have taken only one person to have one drink too many and be sick and blame it on the food and we would have been seen as being irresponsible.”

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Far from being irresponsible, the company took the decision to ensure nobody was left out of pocket, including refunding thousands of tickets at £25 to £30 each.

“From the bands to the people who would have taken the coats and washed the dishes, every single bill we would have paid we did,” he says. “We had an horrific November. Clearly I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else or ourselves again. But as business challenges go, it was pretty interesting.”

Courage out of a crisis

It is to Selby’s credit that he can take positives out of the situation. “What I know now about [norovirus] procedures means I could probably launch another career helping other operators if, God forbid, they also got into this situation,” he says, with a smile. “It was an interesting time.”

At the time of the outbreak, the company was unaware of its cause. It shut nine of its 25 restaurants after it realised that the food poisoning cases were not isolated incidents, although its impact was much larger than just these nine sites.

“We knew it was from an external source but couldn’t track from where, says Selby. “We were affected in most of the restaurants. We had implications in more than the nine we closed, but we were able to deal with it quicker. At one stage, almost all restaurants were affected.”

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Once the company knew what it was, it got in touch with relevant officials at Public Health England and at local environmental health offices and carried out anti-viral deep cleaning at all of its restaurants, whether affected or not. It also ensured that any staff member who had reported being ill remained off site until their symptoms had ceased for at least 72 hours.

“It came in through an external source but lingered through our staff,” Selby adds. “Other staff would come in and get ill. Any member of staff who was sick was taken straight out of the building and sent home. We paid them to be away for that time.”

At the company’s South Bank site, one worker who called in ill lived with another eight members of staff, so Selby had to tell them all not to come in. “We couldn’t take that risk. We were monitoring every site twice a day – every staff illness and customer complaint.”

“We have gone back through all of our practices to see what we could have done differently and some interesting things have come out from that. There was nothing we could have done to have avoided that situation.”

A humbling response

In a world where a social media backlash can start and spread within seconds, as those operators impacted by the tipping issue last year can attest, it was noticeable that the majority of the messages Wahaca received were supportive, highlighting how highly the brand is regarded by consumers and peers alike.

“Predominantly, the response to what we were going through, whether in the wider media, from consumers or on social media was very humbling,” says Selby. “It was a really emotional time for us. We were moments away from thinking we would have to close all our restaurants for four weeks, which would probably have killed the company.

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“You have got to play the morality card before anything else because you can’t put anyone’s welfare at risk. You have to make informed decisions at the time, not knowing how it has got into the business.”

Selby says the hardest thing to deal with was the internal impact. Restaurants were quieter as customers turned away from the brand, resulting in staff getting significantly fewer tips than they were used to. In response to this, for the first four weeks after the incident, Wahaca paid a theoretical tip to everyone, because Selby says it was imperative to retain the staff and keep them motivated.

“We managed to get back to some sort of normality quicker than we thought, but we are still not out of the woods.

“We had to be quite sensitive, and still have to be, in terms of our marketing. Up to January, it has still been fresh in people’s minds so we couldn’t go out shouting about any new menus or food items because you may annoy people or reignite any negative feelings that are still out there. So we have had to stay low key.”

Looking to the next 10 years

The one positive has been that it has given the company time to have a real look at where it is heading. “It is our 10th year in business so there would have been some introspection but what happened has definitely underlined that.

“We are looking even more closely at how we celebrate that anniversary, while focusing on further developing the business and looking at the next 10 years. We have always been very proud of being innovative, being different and driving the business forward. But are we as innovative today as we were?”

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As a result, the company has taken a step back to look at the food, the brand and the offer and ask itself where it wants to be in another 10 years’ time. “It is almost like that near-death experience when you question what life is all about,” says Selby. “Are we going to do things different or refocus on what made this business great in the first place?”

As a direct result of the outbreak, the company pulled out of opening in Nottingham and won’t be adding to its estate until the second half of this year. “You have to open big  and confident, and we felt we wouldn’t be able to do that to the best of our ability,” says Selby.

“There is no point in opening until we feel as a brand we have got back to the right place.”

Wahaca has also distanced itself from a few projects it had been considering a year ago but that had “stupid rents attached”. “They have been offered to us again, but we have turned them down,” he says.

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The company hasn’t completely taken its foot off the gas, however. A site in Shoreditch due to open in August or September will be used as a test bed for future plans. “We will look at the menu there and see how we can play with it and innovate. It will be something like Wahaca 2.0. Nothing too radical, but getting back to the principles from when we started. It is a nice site to have in our pocket.”

Wahaca might also experiment with more higher end menu items to reinforce its food credentials. “We’d like to add a few more expensive things on the menu and do them really well. We know from our previous collaborations and supper clubs with top Mexican chefs that we can do really amazing food.”

In the meantime, Selby says the company’s focus is on revisiting all its existing dishes and asking how it can make them better and more delicious. “We have got to go back out and restore people’s confidence in the brand. We are incredibly proud to have started the taco revolution in the UK – we have been a big driver in the success of Mexican food in this country and we don’t want to lose that.

“We want to continue to produce the best value Mexican food in the UK. We have given ourselves a year to get back to where we were and we feel we are ahead at present.

“We spent more than £1m looking after our staff over the period. We will not do as well this year as we did last year, but we will get ourselves in the best shape for the next five or 10 years."

Related topics: Business, Restaurants, Dining trends

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