Wahaca, the Mexican U.K. restaurant chain named after Oaxaca, in Mexico, and launched by 2005 MasterChef winner Thomasina Miers, has retreated on its so-called ‘dine-and-dash’ “walkout” policy after a waiter told a member of the public that they would have to pay for such a table out of their own wages. The chain, which has 25 restaurants, a broadly Mexican menu, and a zealous commitment to sustainability is is co-owned by Miers and Mark Selby. Wahaca has been criticised for both its restaurant HR policy, and its response to a tweet from former Camden Labour councillor Sarah Hayward, after she ate in the restaurant’s Kentish Town branch on Saturday evening.
Here’s a timeline of the events since the weekend.
Saturday evening: Former Camden Labour councillor, Sarah Hayward tweets from the Kentish town branch:
“Ppl [sic] next to us left without paying and their server is made to foot the bill from his wages. Apparently company policy. Utterly shameful employment practice.”
Hi @wahaca just eaten in your Kentish Town restaurant for the last time.— Sarah Hayward (@Sarah_Hayward) June 15, 2019
Ppl next to us left without paying and their server is made to foot the bill from his wages. Apparently company policy. Utterly shameful employment practice.
Food's great, company is crap.@thomasinamiers
Miers responds to Hayward, pointing out that “only in cases of total negligence” are staff members penalised:
Guys, It is absolutely not standard policy for waiters to be deducted, only in cases of total negligence which this certainly does not seem to be. We are a company that looks after our staff and I am very proud of this. This waiter has unfortunately not understood the policy...— thomasinamiers (@thomasinamiers) June 16, 2019
Sunday: A series of denials, clarifications in real time, and admissions of opacity appear both from Miers’ own and Wahaca’s official social media accounts.
It is not standard practice and we will be making sure all our staff understand this. A shame that we are hung out so readily. We have a deservedly good reputation in looking after our staff although our comms are clearly lacking...— thomasinamiers (@thomasinamiers) June 16, 2019
@Sarah_Hayward We will def be ensuring that our managers know the full policy as carelessness def isn’t the same thing as gross negligence (gross negligence is totally standard practice in the industry). It is discretionary though hence us looking into what happened. Thank you.— thomasinamiers (@thomasinamiers) June 16, 2019
We’d like to assure you that this is not our standard policy, only in cases of total negligence will a individual be held accountable, which is very rare. This will not be deducted from the waiter & we will be looking into making sure we have clarity on our policy internally— wahaca (@wahaca) June 16, 2019
Monday morning: Someone claiming to be a former employee tweets a photograph of pages taken from the Wahaca company handbook issued to staff.
A spokesperson confirmed the handbook was an official Wahaca document, but that it “was very old.” They added, “Wahaca of course ensures all its policies are regularly reviewed by independent lawyers.”
In it, staff are told:
“If through your negligence a customer leaves the restaurant without paying, you will be liable to pay the full bill including service to the Company or it will be deducted from your wages.
“Once you have taken an order, whether for your own table or not, until you hand/transfer the table to the correct person, you will be personally responsible for collecting the money and will be required to repay any shortage or it will be deducted from your pay.”
The company handbook does not use the phrase “gross,” “total,” nor “real” (which is referenced in an article by the BBC which quotes co-founder Mark Selby) in this section. It simply says “negligence,” which is at best open to interpretation and at worst ambiguous by design, to insure an employer against an employee.
A spokesperson for Wahaca said that: “Negligence refers to instances of the waiting staff being complicit in the walk out, and if that was to happen there would of course will be a full investigation undertaken via the Operations Manager.”
Asked whether such conduct would not automatically result in that employee’s dismissal, and why financial penalties were framed according to negligence vis-a-vis a specific bill payment, and not the job itself, the spokesperson did not immediately respond.
This morning, Wahaca has moved to clarify its position:
In light of the recent incident where customers walked out of one of our restaurants without paying, we realise that our policy on how to deal with this has not been clear enough and we apologise to our teams for this.
We subsequently contacted all of our teams to clarify this and to ensure that waiters will not have to pay in the unfortunate times when this occurs.
Our clarified policy is below and we thank those that brought this to our attention:
“In situations of a walk out, whilst the waiter is responsible for the table they will not have to pay any element of the bill. However if the manager suspects that the waiter was complicit in the walk out then there should be a full investigation which will be taken to the Operations Manager to decide the appropriate action.”
A spokesperson also confirmed to Eater that the handbook would be updated as well.
Despite a number of members of the industry moving quickly to criticise the policy and its optics, it might not be a practice used only by so-called corporate, faceless chain restaurants which have lost sight of ‘true hospitality.’
A London restaurateur told Eater that while such a policy might appear nefarious, they understand it to be a comparatively standard contractual obligation across the industry, “even if most places don’t enforce in practice.”
“I’ve never known anyone to [enforce it] and certainly wouldn’t unless someone had actually trashed the place,” they said.
They added: “In totally theoretical terms you (arguably) need some cover for that one waiter who tells their mates they’ll look the other way while they do a runner. I guess. I mean, in practical terms I don’t entirely see the point in it.” They also said that they did not enforce their staff to sign the agreement despite it being issued to them by a third party HR company which drafted its contracts.