A norovirus outbreak that led to the closure of nine Wahaca restaurants late last year after 200 staff and 160 diners fell ill has proved a "life-changing" experience that has caused the restaurant group's founders to look again at every aspect of the business.
That's according to Mark Selby, who co-founded Wahaca with former MasterChef winner Thomasina Miers in 2007.
The outbreak saw Wahaca's Manchester restaurant close first, on 26 October 2016. The group, which runs 25 Wahaca restaurants and two DF/Mexico sites, then took action to close eight others when it became clear that 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 stressed, however, that Public Health England did not find fault with the group's systems.
Speaking to The Caterer, Selby said: "It was a life-changing experience in a way, without being too dramatic about it. For starters we had no idea what the hell it was for about three or four days. It effectively hit about 18 of our businesses, materially in some and not so materially in others, but certain businesses weren't hit by it.
"It was just 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, i.e. by the time customers were actually calling in sick, it had already washed out. It has a 48-hour effect and so people were coming in on a Thursday and then being sick maybe on a Saturday and by Tuesday calling up."
The problems, which came just ahead the restaurant brand's tenth anniversary, have caused the founders to completely re-examine every aspect of the business.
Selby added. "Ten years in and we were thinking about doing lots of celebrations but what this has made us realise is, okay, let's look at the whole business again.
"Obviously we have got to try and address what has happened. We can't just sit back and go 'well it wasn't our fault'. It is very difficult because it could literally be anything but there are a couple of indicators from Public Health England who have said 'it might be these products' so we have had to be prudent with regards to certain suppliers we work with. We have looked at suppliers and asked ourselves how we get ourselves as bulletproof as we can to make sure that this never happens again."
One of the most difficult aspects of this was working with the small suppliers - which Wahaca likes to champion - to make sure that they have the systems in place to ensure that such problems don't reoccur, Selby said.
He added: "We grew by 5-6 sites last year which for us was a big growth so now we want to make sure our food is as good as we can possibly get it. It has hurt us as a brand, there is no doubt about it, let's not pretend it hasn't - 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, a great vibe."
And he said he was particularly proud about the way in which the team at Wahaca had rallied in the face of the acute problems posed by the norovirus outbreak.
"It has been pretty hard for the team," he said. "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 times that tears welled up in your eyes talking to the guys who were really supportive of us and the amount of comforting emails Tommi and I got from the team members and us writing back, going round to see everyone, talking to people, it was a really bonding experience within the company.
"Some people were kind of pissed off they were working so hard and others were like 'we are going to get through this and it is going to be amazing.' The guys who did that are such a strong part of the team now and a real rock in terms of how we want to take it all forward."
Miers and Selby are now set to go back to Mexico and New York for two or three weeks to immerse themselves once again in Mexican cuisine. "I genuinely think our food is a lot better than when we started but we want to carry on making it better and better and this has given us an excuse to do that. It is quite an exciting time for the business, where we are saying 'where do we want to be and how do we want to get there?'."
Look out for a full interview with Mark Selby about his plans for the Wahaca business in a forthcoming issue of The Caterer magazine.
Videos from The Caterer archives