The rise of the 'testaurant'

By Sophie Witts and Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

casual dining restaurant brands are using test kitchens to trial dishes

Related tags: Restaurant

Independent restaurants have long given over quieter days to trialling new dishes, but now casual-dining groups are getting in on the act.

Last year, an outbreak of norovirus across Mexican chain Wahaca​ left the 27-strong restaurant group in a reflective mood. The food scare, which affected is restaurants across the UK, not only caused founders Thomasina Miers and Mark Selby to re-evaluate their operations, but it led them to take a step back and consider the future of the business and its place in the fast-growing Mexican sector. If Wahaca launched today, they mused, what would it look like?

It’s a question many established restaurants would do well to ask themselves and one of particular relevance to Wahaca, which has gone from Mexican street food trailblazer to a mainstream player in the decade since it was founded by the pair in Covent Garden in 2007. When it began, London was home to only a couple of authentic Mexican restaurants, making Wahaca stand out.

Yet in the past few years, the capital has become inundated with Mexican restaurants and taquerias, many of which have pushed the boundaries beyond Wahaca’s offer, causing the brand to now question its position in the category.

“When we started Wahaca, Mexican food was almost a dirty word but, in the past 10 years, the food scene has completely changed around us,” says Miers. “The norovirus outbreak was a line in the sand for us last year. We thought, this is awful, but let’s use it as an 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.”

This shaking up of things has come, in part, in the form of Wahaca’s Test Kitchen restaurant​, which it opened in Shoreditch at the tail end of last year. Unlike other sites in the group, Shoreditch was developed as a test bed for new dishes and to try to replicate the freedom of the Covent Garden kitchen in the early days before scalability came into the equation.

“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,” says Selby. “We asked ourselves, given what we know about Mexican food and the market, what would Wahaca look like if we started it today?”

More fun menus

The Shoreditch menu features dishes available at the group’s existing restaurants – pork pibil tacos; chicken and avocado club quesadilla being just two examples – but a lot more besides. Among the newly created dishes it is trialling are whole roast sea bream with al ajillo butter; charred cauliflower and pomegranate seeds; and slow-cooked beef shin burrito bowls under a new Market Boards section of the menu.

“There are lots more complex salsas and moles, and a higher proportion of vegetable and vegan dishes,” says Miers. “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. And our burritos are going to be without rice for the first time.

wahaca-salmon-tartare
Salmon tartare at Wahaca's Test Kitchen

“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.”

“In the beginning, we felt that we couldn’t really do that,” adds Selby. “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 past 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, and chicken and avocado.”

This approach has also been extended to the drinks offer, something that has always been a strong focus for the company but has grown a bit tired over time, admits Selby. “We got into 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 because we were concerned about the costs.”

“We’ve played around with things and not worried about the cost too much,” adds Miers. “In London, you need to be competitive and create these great products, so that’s been quite a big driver, just releasing the shackles.”

Real-time feedback

Wahaca’s Test Kitchen is more than just having a bit of fun and giving chefs the opportunity to stretch themselves creatively. Thanks to recently created technology, the company closely monitors the performance of each individual new dish by using real-time feedback rather than going by the traditional method of monitoring which dishes are eaten and which go in the bin.

“Traditionally, in restaurants, almost the only way to get feedback is to sit in the restaurant yourself and see what people are doing,” says Selby. “There were a couple of things on the Wahaca menu we looked at 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?”

wahaca-bill
The 'intelligent bill' at Wahaca

It has worked with data platform Yumpingo to create an ‘intelligent bill’, ostensibly a smartphone-like device that is delivered in a traditional bill wallet. Using the device, diners can select any dish they have eaten and rate its flavour, value and appearance. Feedback is sent straight to the back office and generates a report, allowing Wahaca to get data such as the top 10 and bottom 10 performing dishes.

“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,” says Selby.

Using its noodle

Wahaca isn’t alone in this approach. In October last year, Wagamama also made its first steps into testing territory with its Noodle Lab in Soho​. The restaurant is described as being a ‘hot bed of recipe experimentation and taste exploration’, giving customers a sneak peek of new dishes and the chance to give feedback before they hit the national menu.

Overseen by executive chef Steve Mangleshot, menus at the Noodle Lab change on a monthly basis and will feature never-seen-before Asian inspired recipes, according to the company. It made a splash with its launch menu that included a coconut reika ice cream topped with hot katsu curry sauce.  

Not all the dishes being tested are as avant garde as katsu ice cream. Dishes being tested on the January menu include pumpkin onigiri; salmon tataki; chocolate and peanut butter tart; and mango and matcha millefeuille.

wagamama-test-kitchen-food
Wagamama's Noodle Lab in Soho is trialling dishes

Dishes it has previously trialled include tantanmen pork ramen; a Vietnamese glass noodle salad and ika katsu – squid balls with okonomiyaki sauce, nori and benito flakes with a Japanese mayonnaise.

The opening of its Noodle Lab also coincided neatly with the launch of a 29-dish-strong vegan and vegetarian menu​ across the group and the company says that more vegetarian and vegan dishes will be tested in Soho to continually evolve the offer. Indeed, the majority of the dishes tested in January were vegetarian or vegan, including agedashi – crispy silken tofu in a dashi stock; tofu ramen; sticky seitan stir fry; vegatsu and cookmama – shichimi-coated tofu and udon noodles in a fragrant curry sauce with vegetables and finished with crispy coconut ‘bacon’, coriander, yuzu and sesame dressing.

As with Wahaca, the company is also using the lab to inform its drinks offer, with a matcha tea soft drink and a low-calorie prosecco currently on the menu, and drinks such as non-alcoholic spirit Seedlip having been
tested previously.

The feedback element is more ostentatious than at Wahaca’s Shoreditch restaurant. Live comments from customers are broadcast on screens within the restaurant, with tweaks made to each dish where necessary throughout service.

With their customer-facing test kitchens, both Wagamama and Wahaca are attempting to return to their early days with dish development that belies their large company status. And it does so with less risk attached – or at least that’s the theory. Yet whether testing new dishes on Londoners alone – known for being more adventurous in their food tastes than other parts of the country – will provide enough useful insight for a national rollout of new dishes remains to be seen.

At the moment, it’s just trial and error. At Wahaca, successful dishes might make the menu proper or they might even help spawn another Mexican restaurant, but at the moment Selby and Miers are keeping their options open.

“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,” says Selby. 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 [at Shoreditch], whereas if you’ve got [a menu in] 27 sites across the country you can’t do that.”

Test-Kitchen-Adam_Simmonds

The Test Kitchen – a year of customer feedback

The practice of trialling dishes in a service is one that has been employed by independent restaurants for many years. Stevie Parle’s Docklands restaurant Craft London runs ‘test kitchen Tuesday’ where, for a set price, diners taste a blind menu of up to six development-stage dishes. According to the restaurant, it gives its diners an opportunity to be involved in the creative process of the menu. “We really want you to engage with our chefs and be part of the collaborative ethos that Craft London is committed to,” it says.

Former Danesfield House chef Adam Simmonds has taken this one step further, with his Soho restaurant The Test Kitchen. Launched as a year-long pop-up (it closed at the end of last month) as the name suggests, the restaurant served a constantly changing menu with diners encouraged to provide feedback at the end of their meal via a carefully worded questionnaire.

This isn’t using guests as guinea pigs, as some critics have suggested, however. All dishes at The Test Kitchen had already undergone rigorous testing, but comments are taken into account and tweaks made based on the responses. Portion sizes were changed, as did prices since opening, with the saltiness and sweetness of certain dishes modified as a result of the feedback.

Over the past year, Simmonds has gathered thousands of comments on the food, wine, coffee and service, with guests giving feedback on the dish and flavour combinations they enjoyed the most, what their preferred tastes, textures and aromas were, as well as which dishes they were challenged by. The end game, he says, is to open his own permanent restaurant, and the feedback he has received will be used to create the final menus for that launch. Simmonds intends to have around 30 to 35 dishes pinned down, with the feedback also informing the restaurant’s service style. “It has been a huge learning curve,” he says. “It has been a great platform to showcase what we can do and interact with customers. I’ve learnt a lot.”

This article first appeared in the February issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here

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