It feels slightly awkward when the industry’s dirty laundry gets aired with the wider world, as was the case with Wahaca last week, writes Mark Stretton.
It’s always hard to get a handle on the reality of these situations once the issue has passed through the swirling social media vortex several thousand times, and the masses have reached a state of collective frenzy.
That said, my read is this:
- Wahaca, like most of the casual dining industry, did at some point have such a policy in place, which was discretionary and enforceable if servers were ever negligent in letting diners walk without paying.
- Similar rules used to apply across the industry, and probably still do, if cash floats are ‘short’ when returned at the end of shifts.
- Wahaca does not deploy this policy any more – witness co-founders Mark Selby and Thomasina Miers’ fast and definitive rebuttal.
- When it was in use, said policy was designed to drive the right behaviours and prevent collusion between guests and servers, and in turn, fraud (or as some might call it, stealing).
- The actual incident may well have happened at Wahaca last weekend (to the abhorrence of the management) and may still be used by some GMs unofficially.
The bottom line is that this type of policy is deeply flawed, unfair and open to abuse – and it is still practised by restaurants across the industry, either at a company level, or at a local one.
Stress-testing the bubble
Stepping back from the immediate situation, the truth that dare not speak its name is that too often in our industry, there exists a mentality of Operator Is King. If the operators think it’s a good idea then that is pretty much what prevails. That may sound too simplistic but my sense is that too often our operations and the way we do things remain in a bubble, that is based on the most logical and pragmatic approach, operationally. It’s a bubble that has not been properly scrutinised and stress-tested to effectively understand where the reputational risks are and what needs to change.
If you are charged with brand stewardship then part of the job must be to identify the live issues that will do your brand real and lasting damage when the media (journalists or social) discover them and decide they do not approve. There are possibly too many brands and companies not effectively managing these risks.
Taking cash back for shortfalls in floats or when diners dash (and it may all feel a bit fishy) is a practical and pragmatic, operator-led approach that has no place in our industry, and certainly does not play well in the pages of The Guardian, on the BBC 10 O’Clock News and in the Twittersphere. We can no longer take money from our people, especially not front-line servers on modest wages. If this sort if incident happens, we either believe and trust our people, or they need to leave the organisation (or to be correct about it, they need to be part of an immediate disciplinary process).
This is not to pick on Wahaca – they have been unlucky. This could have happened to any one of a hundred companies.
As to what extent this situation has damaged Wahaca, my sense is that while it feels bad at the moment, only time will tell. Contrary to some of my colleagues, and despite the widespread vehement and voluble public condemnation, the fact that the company and its founders have a presence in the media, and are considered a reasonably positive force, may help mitigate any fallout. This issue, which has fuelled several follow-up articles looking at the issue across the restaurant sector, feels like more of an industry problem and one we must collectively sort out (by moving away from any last vestiges of such policies).
Separately, the incident is another graphic illustration of how difficult it is to control the messaging, and to get your side of the story out, once the social media monster has grabbed hold of an issue. Increasingly, the speed of social means that companies must be prepared and fully resourced to respond adequately.