Thomasina Miers and Mark Selby opened their first Mexican street food restaurant, Wahaca, in Covent Garden in 2007. Five years on and with eight sites, the brand can lay claim to starting a UK Mexican revolution. The duo tell Kerstin Kühn how they managed Wahaca’s growth and what the future holds
Tell us about the idea behind Wahaca when you first founded the business.
Thomasina Miers I first went out to Mexico when I was 18 and discovered all this amazing food, which I’d never known about. I spent my first night with this woman in Mexico City, who threw a dinner party for 50 people and there was this massive spread. I didn’t recognise any of it – none of the ingredients, none of the dishes – and after I lived in Mexico I realised that authentic Mexican food – which is so vibrant, fresh and full of flavour and not at all stodgy and heavy like the Tex-Mex food we’re used to – was just not available in the UK.
Mark Selby When we came together with the idea of launching a Mexican restaurant in London, we went out there together and travelled across the country and tried loads of food from fine dining to street food. It became apparent quite quickly that the market food is where it’s at and what we wanted our restaurant to be about. All the food is marinated for a long time and slow-cooked so you go through a long process of preparation but once that’s done the food is served very quickly so that lent itself really well to the kind of restaurant we wanted to have.
Was it always your intention to have a group of restaurants?
TM It took us a year to find the first site and it was much bigger than what we’d planned. It was a huge challenge for us and initially all we were focused on was surviving in Covent Garden. There were so many challenges and dramas.
MS It was really hard and there were moments when we thought the ship was about to sink. But I guess at the back of our minds was always the intention of having, not a chain, but a group of restaurants that are all different and unique but linked together by a common thread. It took us about a year to get to a point where we felt we were ready to open a second restaurant.
How was it going from one to multiple sites?
MS We thought it would be really easy opening our second restaurant because we’d managed the first but it was really, really tough. It gets harder and harder with each site until you get to about where we are now. With the first restaurant we were practically living there and everyone got used to us always being around. But when you expand you suddenly don’t see your general manager every day, you see them two, three times a week and it’s harder to ensure you keep people motivated and happy.
TM We also started with such an amazing vision, which everyone on the team sweated blood and tears to execute, and with the expansion came the worry of that vision being compromised. It hasn’t at all and I’d say our food has got better over time but there was that real fear at the beginning of the expansion.
Five years in, what have been the biggest challenges?
MS People management is definitely the hardest bit. We now have two full-time members of staff in charge of training and we have the capacity to develop someone from the bottom right through to being a general manager within two years – but it took a lot to get there.
TM That’s what we learnt and love about the business, the training side of things. In many other countries, unlike the UK, being a waiter is considered a career and treated as a really serious job. And, for us, being able to provide that training, both front and back of house, is really important. It feels like we’re giving something back to the industry as even if someone leaves, at least we know, we’ve given them the best possible training.
How would you describe your partnership?
TM The great thing is that we are completely different. The things that I’m really bad at, Mark’s great at and Mark’s not so hot in the kitchen, which is my area. Mark has been getting more and more involved in the design of each site and with each new opening Wahaca has become more and more creative.
MS We also have a good relationship in that we challenge each other a lot but in a very open way. We have very distinct lines in what our responsibilities are.
How much do you think winning MasterChef has helped the success of the business?
TM Probably not that much. It definitely helped with opening the first site. But then there was also a misconception that because of MasterChef we’d be offering Michelin-starred food, which of course it wasn’t. Now Wahaca is such a big brand and I still find people who are surprised at the MasterChef connection.
Sustainability has always been very important in your business. Do you think the industry does enough to be sustainable?
TM There’s an awful lot still to be done but it’s incredible what a difference the Sustainable Restaurant Association has made. In terms of the design and build we’re still completely leading the way. But as far as other stuff is concerned, all of us – including the Government – need to worry more, especially when it comes to where food comes from. I can’t believe that restaurants are making so much effort, especially with sourcing sustainable fish, yet the politicians are still doing nothing.
MS It’s so hard to define sustainability – for me it’s to allow sustainable practices to run your business and that applies to all parts of it. For instance, we could massively increase our profits by buying free-range Polish chicken, which is cheaper than the British chicken we buy. But we place Britain and food miles ahead of the free-range thing.
Your eighth site opened on Charlotte Street last month. What makes it different from your other restaurants?
TM We’ve got a new take-away area where we’re doing tortas, which are Mexican toasted sandwiches. They’re these incredible big things you get in Mexico with loads of different fillings. We’ve tried to put them on the menu before but now we’ve got a special sandwich shop for them.
We’re also doing breakfast, which is really exciting. For ages our chefs have been making this delicious avocado-agave smoothie as a pick-me-up and we’ve now finally been able put it on the menu.
MS I’m not sure how well we’re going to do with the breakfast from a business point of view but it’s a really delicious breakfast, which we’ll definitely use in other places. It’s anything from healthy to fill you up on a hangover. There’s also a shop where we’re selling Mexican ingredients, which you can’t get in other places. And there’s a Mezcal bar upstairs. It’s definitely our best overall offering so far in terms of everything we can do.
Do you have plans to expand beyond the capital?
TM I get so many tweets from people asking us to open in Bristol, Manchester and other places. It does feel really London-centric at the moment and we’d definitely like to open restaurants across the country but you can’t run before you can walk.
MS We don’t have to sell, we’re not private equity backed, so it’s not like we have this agenda to nail 10 specific cities in the next two years. We could do it [that quickly] but would we be able to do it well and would we have as much fun doing it? Probably not.
Where do you see yourself after five years?
MS Our ultimate aim is to get people in the UK to think of Wahaca first when they think of Mexican food. We definitely want to get out of London and show people across the country what proper good-flavoured Mexican food is. Maybe not in five years but eventually we’d like to go abroad too, perhaps the USA. And always carry on learning, improving and, with each site, developing what we do.
CHARLOTTE STREET RESTAURANT
Wahaca’s eighth restaurant is located in the site formerly occupied by Bertorelli. Housed in three converted Victorian townhouses, the restaurant is spread over two floors, featuring a 130-seat main dining room on the ground floor and the UK’s first dedicated Mezcal cocktail bar on the first.
The tortaria market shop sells Mexican ingredients and offers a selection of dishes to take away, including salads, burritos, tacos and torta sandwiches. Called Wahacito, it opens from 8am serving a full Mexican breakfast menu including breakfast burritos, sourdough toasted sandwiches, pastries and doughnuts as well as smoothies, including a signature avocado-agave smoothie.
Located on the terrace of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the 18-month pop-up restaurant has been built from eight recycled shipping containers, arranged in a two-storey overhanging structure, with space for 130 diners, a bar, terrace and outdoor seating.
Wahaca is working with street artist Tristan Manco, who has selected a series of graffiti artists to decorate the restaurant. And there are Mexican guest chefs offering up variations on the traditional dishes.
Selby comments: “It has been a really brilliant project. Financially it hasn’t made any sense at all because it has cost us more than any of our other sites to set up. But it has been great fun and our staff really love it and from a marketing point of view it’s been great, too.”
FESTIVAL OF THE DEAD
From 31 October to 3 November, Wahaca is hosting a four-day festival celebrating Mexico’s Day of the Dead in London’s Old Vic Tunnels, featuring food from the street kitchen and cocktails from the Mezcal bar, as well as music, art and film. Each night sees a performance by Rodrigo y Gabriela, with the tunnels doubling up as an exhibition space for work by the photographer Graciela Iturbide and newly-commissioned art installations by Le Gun collective, Hew Locke and Nancy Fouts.
● 2007 Covent Garden
● 2008 Westfield London
● 2009 Canary Wharf
● 2010 Soho
● 2011 Westfield Stratford City and Bluewater, Kent
● 2012 Southbank and Charlotte Street
Owners Mark Selby, Thomasina Miers, Capricorn Holdings, Adam and Sam Kaye
Annual turnover £10m (2011)
By Kerstin Kühn
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