Wahaca, the restaurant chain serving food from Mexico by Thomasina Miers, of Masterchef renown, will close four London restaurants as part of its response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Restaurants in Fitzrovia, Brixton, Kentish Town, and St. Pauls will close, along with six others across the country; the brand is also set to agree a debt-cancelling deal with its creditors, otherwise known as a company voluntary arrangement (CVA.)
Miers and co-founder Mark Selby announced the news in an email to staff this morning, 26 August, seen by Propel. Before announcing the closures, which they described as “a scar that will take many years to heal,” they said:
“The last time I spoke to many of you about what the future looked like was in February when we had just launched our new values with huge energy and excitement, growth in our restaurants was back to amazing levels, we had a new restaurant lined up to open and Wahaca had just been voted London’s favourite restaurant brand in the latest YouGov poll.”
“We had also just returned from Mexico with a whole lot of the team, filling them with the inspiration that Tommi and I have for the country, its people and above all its amazing food.”
The most direct source of that inspiration is Oaxaca, the Mexican city and municipality which took a spin in an Anglicisation machine to give the restaurant its name. The first restaurant opened in Covent Garden, in 2007, with Miers and Selby having founded the business in 2006. In the intervening thirteen years, the chain opened 27 restaurants and, by 2016, London found itself in the midst of a “taco revolution” that it wasn’t really having — there were just options for tacos that weren’t Wahaca. The number of noted Mexican restaurants in the city rose, while the number of noted Mexican restaurants owned and operated by Mexicans did so much more slowly, Notable exceptions like La Chingada in Surrey Quays and Pollo Feliz in Netil Market are the most recent additions to the landscape, joining Homies on Donkeys in Walthamstow and Santo Remedio in Bermondsey.
While Wahaca is as susceptible to the novel coronavirus pandemic as any other chain to have closed, from Cafe Rouge and Bella Italia to Ask and Zizzi — if less inflated by private equity than Pizza Express or Byron Burger — it is in a particular bind. More than any of those, its original selling point — bringing “sunshine and tacos” and a previously unseen “street food” culture to London — now feels uncomfortably anachronistic. It has since dropped the “street food” moniker for “market eating,” but not before reaching a point where it was reportedly selling three million tacos a year.
In recent times, it was heavily criticised for an unclear, out-of-date “dine and dash” policy that came home to roost when a waiter told a customer that they would be charged the full cost of a table that left without paying. The company’s contradictory, confused initial responses to that customer came over poorly, with Miers’ personal social media account and the company’s social media account seemingly at odds over what would happen.
Selby and Miers concluded their letter to staff by saying that:
This is genuinely the hardest email I have ever had to send and I am truly sorry that you are all recipients of it. I apologise unreservedly to those affected and once again thank you for everything you have done for us. While it is little conciliation please know that you have helped make Wahaca into the much-loved business it is today and you will be very much part of its history and its DNA. I do believe we will go on to achieve amazing things but today we pause and say thank you to all the amazing people leaving us. We will truly miss you all and ask you to please stay in touch.
They say they are going to try to save the affected jobs; it is not yet clear how many staff are being made redundant. Eater has contacted Wahaca to confirm.