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Mexican wave goodbye

19 June 2019 | Liz Bowen

Attempting to catch the eye of your waiter to get the bill at the end of a meal can often be a frustrating task. The plates have been cleared but you needed to finish your drink and now they’re busier than worker bees seeing to every other table they’re managing.

Yet is it so frustrating that you’d pack up and leave without paying? For me, the answer is absolutely not, but if you are the type of person who would consider doing such a thing, spare a thought for your poor waiter as the likelihood is, they’ll be sparing their hard-earned change on your behalf.

Such was the situation at popular Mexican restaurant chain, Wahaca, earlier this week and boy, have it’s paid its PR comeuppance.

The company was called out on Twitter for its “utterly shameful employment practice” by former Labour leader of Camden Council, Sarah Hayward, after she witnessed the people sat next to her leave the restaurant without paying. Their server was then “made to foot the bill from his wages” forking out £3 towards the £40 bill.

Off the back of her observation, which received over 8,000 retweets, Hayward said she would never again eat at the Kentish Town restaurant, praising the food but dismissing the company itself, all while @ mentioning co-founder Thomasina Miers.

Since the story broke, more ex-employees, specifically from the chain’s Cardiff restaurant, have spoken out. One claimed she was made to cover a £40 food and drink bill in full in her first week of “working a section alone”, while another said staff were told there would “never be a problem” as long as tables were being properly looked after.  

A number of people have come out in opposition of Wahaca’s policy, with many calling for a “boycott” of the chain, while others have stated they will no longer visit the restaurants. But when those in charge of Wahaca got involved in an attempt to rectify the situation, its “tone deaf” responses were even referred to as a “car crash”. Crisis comms for crisis comms…eek.  

The company came out and said it was only in situations of “gross negligence” that waiters are charged, but after it was pointed out that this still didn’t really clarify the situation in the case of the Kentish Town instance at all, Wahaca apologised for its ‘unclear’ policy. It has since “tightened” its aforementioned policy and published the new one on its website.

And what about the waiter in question, I hear you ask? He will no longer have to fork out (or will be refunded if he already has, we assume.) 

While £3 may not seem a lot in the grand scheme of things, it is, for the waiters involved, literally like throwing their money away. When you don’t earn an awful lot, as the saying goes, you have to look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves – so you don’t really want to be paying for something when you’re not getting a dot in return. 

In an age where employee engagement and wellbeing are top of the business agenda, it seems strange for any company to still have such an archaic policy. If, as Wahaca says, it’s only for situations of gross negligence, then it might want to review its job spec if there’s reason to believe anyone it hires would behave as such.

In its defence, it’s since been revealed that Wahaca isn’t the only company in the hospitality industry to have such a policy, but it’s the one carrying the can and fronting up a PR disaster. As I read somewhere this week: “look after your people, and your people will look after your business.” Wise words indeed.