In 2007 founders Mark Selby and Thomasina Miers faced the challenge of introducing traditional Mexican food to a London market more accustomed to tex mex and refried beans, but in the last decade the taco has become something of a superstar. The burrito boom in the capital means diners can order anything from a £3.50 fried chicken taco at Breddos to £24 pork carnitas at chef Martha Ortiz’s high-end Ella Canta on Park Lane.
So when an outbreak of norovirus at the chain last year led Selby and Miers to take a step back and consider the future of the business, they began to reevaluate the group's place in the modern market.
If Wahaca launched in 2017, what would it look like? That’s the question the group is hoping to answer with its new Test Kitchen restaurant in Shoreditch. Diners have the chance to trial and give immediate feedback on new dishes and ideas, which will then be developed and potentially rolled out across Wahaca's 26 other restaurants.
BigHospitality caught up with Selby and Miers to find out what the new project means for the future of the chain.
Why did you want to launch this Test Kitchen site?
TM: When we started Wahaca Mexican food was almost a dirty word, but in the last ten years the food scene has completely changed around us. The norovirus outbreak was a line in the sand for us last year. We thought, this is awful, but let’s use it as opportunity to take a look at our business. There is so much going on and we thought maybe it was time we shook ourselves up a bit.
MS: We were opening probably five to six sites a year while developing (sister brand) DF Mexico and it started getting to a point where we both wanted to be innovative but it was becoming quite hard. We asked ourselves, given what we know about Mexican food and the market, what would Wahaca look like if we started it today?
How has the boom in Mexican restaurants impacted Wahaca?
TM: I think it’s brilliant…we all help each other out with chillis. We’ve been shouting about Mexican food for a decade and it was getting a bit lonely out there. When I first went to Mexico 20 years ago almost no one outside the Americas knew about the cuisine. It was this amazing culinary secret and chefs around the world have slowly started to learn.
What kind of dishes are you trialling on the Test Kitchen menu?
TM: There are lots more complex salsas and moles, and a higher proportion of vegetable and vegan dishes. When you go to Mexican cantinas you order a plate of something and the tortillas come on the side, and you can share or have it to yourself. So we’ve got these big market boards, there's a whole roast sea bream with al ajilo butter (£19.95) and charred cauliflower with pomegranate seeds, tomato salsa and avocado mojo. Our burritos are going to be without rice for the first time…and we’re putting nachos on!
MS: In the beginning we felt that we couldn’t really do that. Ten years ago if you plopped a whole fish or a big bit of meat in front of people with lots of tortillas…people didn’t really understand what tacos were.
Our quesadillas have got bigger over the last decade, in Wahaca you can almost have one for lunch, but in Mexico it is a little starter dish. So we’ve done one here with pulled pork (£4.50) and chicken and avocado (£4.50).
I think we got in to a bit of a rut with our drinks...so we decided to have some more fun with it. We’ve created a bright pink bubble gum margarita with popping candy, and a jalapeno margarita that we never really nailed properly before as we were concerned about the costs.
It sounds like you’re taking a much more relaxed approach to the menu…
MS: When we opened we were worried that we had to dispel any preconceptions about Mexican food so felt like we had to be quite straight laced, but you’d find these dishes in a cool bar in Mexico City. We’ve played around with things and not worried about the cost too much. In London you need to be competitive and create these great products, so that’s been quite a big driver, just releasing the shackles.
TM: We were so worried about being authentic but it’s nonsense. When we opened Wahaca ten years ago, we had so many myths to dispel...[but] all the new guys in the field have broken some barriers for us too. It’s been quite liberating, we can actually do anything in the Mexican sphere now.
Why did you want to bring in the feedback system?
MS: Traditionally in restaurants almost the only way to get feedback is to sit in the restaurant yourself and see what people are doing.
TM: And look at what goes in the bin.
MS: There were a couple of things on the Wahaca menu we looked and asked, is that really as good as we can get it? It might be one of our biggest sellers, but is that just because it’s familiar to people, as opposed to being brilliant?
How does the feedback work?
MS: We’ve worked with [food data platform] Yumpingo to create an ‘intelligent bill’. It's a smartphone delivered in a traditional bill wallet, which allows diners to press on any item and rate the flavour, value and appearance of a dish.
The feedback is sent straight to the back office and generates a report. So we can see our top ten and bottom ten items over time, and if we roll it out we can break it down across the whole business and site by site to pick out anomalies.
The potential future is if one product gets under an 80% rating it can go straight to the kitchen team so the head chef knows to watch what’s going on. If a dish gets a 90% score in one site and 70% in another that’s a problem, so these reports can become quite powerful over time.
Tapping a screen also helps avoid awkward situations…
TM: You always try and train your waiters to get feedback but it’s actually quite a hard thing for them to do. Sometimes I go to restaurants and think, god that was so uninspiring, and even though I’m a restaurateur and would want to know when things aren’t up to scratch, you still think, well it’s not the waiter’s fault, or maybe they’ll think I’m being rude.
We did a trial in another Wahaca and the feedback was really interesting. We had this wonderful pearl barley risotto with a coriander jus inspired by a few trips to Mexico, but people just didn’t get it. For me it was the most delicious thing on the menu, but our customers weren’t keen. It’s quite humbling actually and is important to take on board that we’ve all got different tastes.
What’s your long-term plan for the Test Kitchen site?
TM: Some dishes might stay here, and then it might spawn another Mexican restaurant, but we’d like to keep our options open.
MS: We’ve got a long lease for the building and are willing to change the layout so we’ve got an open mind on how it will work. I don’t think there’s any point doing more Test Kitchens, but if the digital bill is really successful here and customers like it then we’ll roll it out.
We always want to be kept on our toes, and as you get bigger that gets harder. We tried to imagine how we could ensure we were constantly innovating our food without crippling the business. It’s a way of keeping ourselves young. We can change the whole menu by Monday morning if we need to here, whereas if you’ve got [a menu in] 27 sites across the country you can’t do that.
What’s next for Wahaca?
MS: We want to grow but from our point of view this is the start of Wahaca being really innovative. What we did ten years ago with Mexican food we want to do again with this menu by pushing boundaries. We’ll expand and open new sites, but we’re not in any sort of rush. It’s about getting things right here, then going and spreading that over the next ten years.