The Mexican restaurant group apologised and promised to clarify its guidelines around walk-outs after a customer tweet alleging a member of staff had to cover part of the bill when a table walked out without paying in its Kentish Town restaurant went viral.
The “Tell Us” line is a coded system where team members can leave an anonymous message for co-founder Mark Selby if they are concerned about the company’s practices.
Selby told BigHospitality that keeping tabs on all Wahaca’s restaurants had become more difficult as the company has grown, and admitted the walk-out policy had not been reviewed for some time. The group he founded with MasterChef winner Thomasina Miers in 2007 now has 27 restaurants in locations including London, Cardiff and Edinburgh.
“Five or six years ago I could see everyone in the business in a month, but I can’t do that now,” he says. “Had [the walk-out issue] been brought to my attention we would have put a stop to it a long time ago, but there hasn’t been a forum for someone to wave a flag. The buck stops with me, but I haven’t thought about that policy for ten years. I assumed it wasn’t happening. But if it is there’s now a way to let me know.”
He adds that waiters had been charged for dine-and-dash tables in a "small number" of cases, amounting to "£200-300 a year" across the business, which was still “undefendable”.
“[Social media] can quickly become very one-sided,” says Selby. “There’s very little opportunity to get the full picture out there. In this case we couldn’t explain the situation and I think it was assumed that this was happening every day in all our restaurants, when it wasn’t. But we do appreciate it being brought to our attention.”
Wahaca is updating its staff handbook to clarify the walk-out policy and ensure staff guidance reflects its position in 2019. This will mean a waiter is not financially responsible for a bill if a diner walks out, unless a manger suspects they are “complicit”.
"In hindsight we could have reviewed our handbook more recently as the policy was very outdated,"says Selby.
The team will also ensure just one person handles the company response in any potential crisis going forward.
“This went out to numerous people in the business, so there were different and some emotional responses coming in," says Selby. "In future we’ve agreed one person deals with it, and we keep it simple.”
He insists that Wahaca’s staff remain its “absolute priority” and is frustrated its other initiatives, such as its carbon neutral status or paying for English lessons for team members, receive less attention.
"We spend more time talking about how we look after our people than anything else in the business. You cant defend the undefendable and that’s fine, but there are lots of other great things we do."
This story was adapted from a feature in the August issue of Restaurant magazine.