Mark Selby and Thomasina Miers were on the verge of celebrating 10 successful years of Wahaca when their business was struck by a norovirus outbreak. Selby tells Neil Gerrard how the brand is getting back on track and why he wants tacos to be the casual-dining choice on everyone's lips
But any plans to celebrate this milestone had to be put on hold while the business dealt with the fallout from a damaging outbreak of norovirus late last year. That process is still ongoing, and just last week law firm Irwin Mitchell, which represents seven of the 160 diners who fell ill (along with 200 staff) in October 2016, announced that Wahaca had admitted legal liability in the incident.
Only now has the company started to talk about opening its 26th Wahaca restaurant (which it owns, along with two under the DF/Mexico brand and one Burrito Mama site), which is scheduled to open in London's Shoreditch in September.
Wahaca has actually been sitting on the 120-130-cover site, the former home of Yard on Tabernacle Street, since February, but having opened five or six sites a year for the past couple of years, Selby and Miers opted to pause the expansion.
"Ten years in and we were thinking about doing lots of celebrations, but what this [the norovirus outbreak - see panel] has made us realise is, OK, let's look at he whole business again," Selby explains. "It has hurt us as a brand - there is no doubt about that; let's not pretend it hasn't - so we thought, let's just spend a year looking at everything and make sure we are going to come back stronger and better with brilliant food, great teams and a great vibe."
Hence the trip to Mexico. The two co-founders revisited the food markets of Oaxaca, discovering different locations and reconnecting with the informality of small-plate dining and the good value that characterises the business they have created in the UK.
"We are challenging ourselves 10 years on and asking ourselves 'what does Wahaca in 10 years' time look like?'," Selby says. "We consider ourselves the pioneers of Mexican food in the UK and we are delighted that there are lots of other people coming into the market now, but we want to be a driving force for innovation, so what do we need to look at to achieve that? What sort of dishes do we want? Some people might want to have outrageously experimental stuff, but others want a regular Mexican fix, so we have to gel the two together."
What they are particularly keen to do is proselytise about the taco and show UK diners that there is more to Mexican food than just burritos.
"We get slightly annoyed when customers order burritos because it's not really our core business and that is why we invented Taco Tuesday in Wahaca. It gives people the opportunity to try something that's authentic with some really cool flavours. Burritos are great, but they are only a small part of Mexican food.
We firmly believe that tacos will continue to grow and be huge in five years' time. We want to get to the stage where people ask themselves if they are going to have chicken and chips, a burger or tacos."
Of course, although it's still no casual-dining behemoth, Wahaca, with its 25 restaurants, is a much bigger beast than it used to be.
Is Selby concerned that it gets harder to innovate when running a group of this size? "It does get a little bit harder," he confirms, "but we are constantly innovating with our menu. Our food underwent quite a big change last summer and we are looking at lots of ideas going into October and November. There are
lots of things you can do to be innovative."
One of those things has been to set up a new restaurant brand, DF/Mexico. It currently occupies two London sites, the first of which launched in Shoreditch in July 2014, followed by a second site in Tottenham Court Road a year later. The idea with the brand was to offer good value, street-food dining with big flavours, with options like tacos, grills and salads and a twist on the Mexican torta served in a brioche bun with smashed avocado.
"Now that Mexican food is becoming better known, there has been this exciting fusion where it is being created using ingredients in lots of different ways that we didn't feel was applicable to Wahaca," Selby says. "We've been inspired by the way American food is mixing with American taqueria food. It's almost like this mom and pop Mexican couple go and live in New York and create homely, New York-Mexican-style food."
This has reinvigorated their creativity and means that if an idea put forward for menu development isn't right for Wahaca, it may find a home in DF/Mexico and vice versa. It has also been successful in its own right. Like-for-like sales are "phenomenal", according to Selby, and are up 20% this year compared with last year.
Further expansion is on the cards for the brand, but much like Wahaca, Selby and Miers don't want to expand it too quickly. "We want Wahaca to be slightly more premium and we are going to raise the bar slowly over the years, on the breadth and the quality, and try different stuff, so that Wahaca can be a shining star of what Mexican food can be," he says.
DF/Mexico occupies sites with a smaller footprint than its sister brand (Shoreditch is 2,500 sq ft), and is due to open this summer at the pop-up Pergola on the Roof in London's White City, atop the former BBC Television Centre, alongside the likes of Patty & Bun.
Meanwhile, Wahaca will continue to grow, at the rate of four or five sites a year. "I don't know how big it can get," says Selby, "It has loads of potential, but we are happy to slowly tick it along, grow it, and do cool designs. We want it to be a really interesting place to go."
After a bruising few months, you get the impression he is relishing the task ahead.
Why take the easy option?
Mark Selby knew he wanted to do something entrepreneurial in either restaurants or theatre since the age of 14. Wahaca, he argues, has both. After working for Merrill Lynch in its corporate finance team, he approached some big-name entrepreneurs, like renowned hospitality business investor and former PizzaExpress chairman Luke Johnson and EasyJet's Stelios Haji-Ioannou.
"After about the third time, Luke Johnson told me to piss off," Selby recalls. But a cleverly worded email to Haji-Ioannou landed him a job. "I sent an email to Stelios entitled 'Easy to delete but why take the easy option?'. A minute later I got an email back saying he'd love to meet me."
Selby worked for Haji-Ioannou for a year and a half before deciding he wanted to open an ambitious restaurant that showcased his love for theatre, where waiters who were also actors and singers would perform.
A friend suggested that he would need a backer and introduced him to Capricorn Ventures (now Capricorn Capital Partners), the firm behind Nando's. For two years, Selby worked as their right-hand man before declaring in 2005 that he wanted to launch his own business. Capricorn offered to back him and, after he was introduced by a mutual friend to MasterChef winner Thomasina Miers, who it turns out he had attended university with, Wahaca was born.
Now the pair have 25 Wahaca restaurants, two DF/Mexico sites and one Burrito Mama. In 2016 Selby and Miers won the Restaurateur of the Year - Group Catey.
Dealing with the norovirus outbreak The outbreak of norovirus at Wahaca's restaurants was as swift as it was unexpected. Wahaca's Manchester restaurant was the first to close, on 26 October 2016. The company then took action to close
eight others when it became clear it was not an isolated incident.
The eight other restaurants were in London's Soho, Covent Garden, Oxford Circus, St Paul's, White City and Canary Wharf, as well as Cardiff and Brighton.
Selby and Miers worked intensively with Public Health England to establish a cause of the illness and, although it appears that it was most likely to have come through a supplier, a precise cause has not been established.
Selby stresses, however, that Public Health England did not find fault with the group's systems.
"It was a life-changing experience in a way, without being too dramatic about it," he says.
"We had no idea what the hell it was for about three or four days. It hit about 18 of our businesses, materially in some and not so materially in others, and certain
businesses weren't hit by it."
"It was a very weird experience. It is not something you could put your finger on and say, 'that's it, stop it'. By the time it worked through the system, ie by the time customers were actually calling in sick, it had already washed out. It has a 48-hour effect, so people were coming into the restaurants on a Thursday, being sick maybe on a Saturday and by Tuesday they were calling us."
Public Health England's investigations established a possible link with certain products, which has meant that Wahaca has had to be prudent with certain suppliers it works with. "We have looked at our suppliers and asked ourselves how we can get ourselves as bulletproof as we can to make sure this never
happens again," he says.
One of the most positive aspects of the ordeal was the response Selby witnessed from many of his staff. "It has been pretty hard for the team," he says. "Everyone worked so hard for four or five weeks. It absolutely killed us, and everyone is still slightly exhausted by it, but it is amazing how they came together - it was genuinely incredible. Everyone worked their absolute backsides off. The amount of times that tears welled up in my eyes when we were talking to the guys who
were really supportive of us, and the amount of comforting emails Tommi and I got from the team members, it was a really bonding experience within the company.
"Some people were kind of pissed off that they were working so hard, but others were like, 'we are going to get through this and it is going to be amazing.' And the guys who did that are such a strong part of the team now and real rocks in terms of how we want to take it all forward."
Mark Selby on…
working with Thomasina Miers
"We have a great managing director, Jo Fleet, who was previously MD of Ask and Zizzi before Gondola took it over, but I oversee the general strategy of the business and the marketing. Tommi is in charge of food development. She is more charming than I am, so she does a lot of the PR and is the face of the brand."
â¦Capricorn Capital Partners
"They have been fantastic. They are big believers in taking it slow and getting it right. The people side is the hardest bit of the business and you need to take a slow approach. They have never said we need to save money or cut back on this or that. They look at what we are doing and they see the food is delicious and sustainable and that people are willing to pay a slight premium for it."
"We wanted to build a business where people are looked after and we didn't want to leave a negative footprint. We wanted zero landfill waste, and in our first site we looked at installing a wormery. We use recycled materials and we were one of the first advocates of the Marine Stewardship Council. We wanted to prove that we could be sustainable and grow."
â¦spend per head
"A lot of businesses push spend per head up, but I always want to push it down. I want people spending less. With us you can come in and spend £6.50 on a drink and a chicken taco, or you can go out with friends and have a couple of cocktails and tequila and it will be £35. It can be cheaper than Nando's and Wagamama, but you can have a whole experience and a great feast."
"We have had some significant price increases and some huge rent and rates increases. Our rates are up 40% across the board. It's horrific. Our underlying principle is that we have got to be good value, so we have got to look at our pricing in relation to everyone else. I am sure that over the next couple of years everyone is going to have to increase their prices."