Wahaca's 'mixed messaging' added 'fuel to the fire' in walk-out policy fiasco

PR experts in the food sector believe Wahaca and co-founder Thomasina Miers could have handled the comms around its eat-and-run policy better after a waiter was 'mistakenly' charged for a customer walk-out.

Wahaca Kentish Town
Wahaca Kentish Town

Over the weekend, a former Labour leader of Camden council Sarah Hayward tweeted that she was eating at Wahaca in Kentish Town when she witnessed an eat-and-run incident.

The waiter serving the customers that fled informed her he would have to cover the cost of the bill, prompting Hayward to express her concerns on social media.

Miers responded and pointed out that the waiter was mistakenly charged £3 on a £40 bill "at the manager’s discretion" but was subsequently reimbursed when the restaurant chain determined the waiter was not to blame or negligent.

Miers said the restaurant did not have a policy to immediately dock staff for walk-outs and the incident was caused "because our (internal) comms are clearly lacking". Miers also complained about Wahaca's reputation being "hung out so readily" on social media.

However, in a subsequent BBC article, Wahaca’s other co-founder, Mark Selby, said the company had decided its policy needed a "clearer direction", which appeared to contradict Miers' earlier assertion it was a comms – rather than policy – problem.

'Turning a molehill into a mountain' 

North PR founder and MD Vickie Rogerson (left) and Lucre MD Rhona Templer

Food PR specialist Rhona Templer, managing director of Lucre, told PRWeek that in the past it has been standard practice in the restaurant industry for waiters to cover the cost of losses, although "thankfully this practice is becoming obsolete".

"We would recommend that all hospitality brands revisit their policies and ensure that the updated ones are properly communicated to staff and stakeholders," Templer added.

Templer said that although Wahaca was quick to react to the situation by promising to look into its policy on walk-outs, its communications was ambiguous.

"There have been mixed messages, with the BBC reporting that ‘Wahaca changes its policy’, while Thomasina Miers tweeted: ‘We haven’t changed it, we’ve clarified it.’," she said.

"The trouble is, the dramatic headline will always win the day, so having clear statements prepared in advance and good internal comms will help prevent a molehill turning into a mountain."

Vickie Rogerson, founder and managing director of North PR, a specialist food, drink and retail PR consultancy, said that a good mantra to adhere to in these situations is that: ‘if you can’t think of anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’.

She added: "As well-meaning as Thomasina Miers was, her twitter responses did little to dampen down the fire and just added to the flames. Rule number one in crisis communications strategy; don’t knee-jerk with an emotive reaction. Understand the facts, listen to the criticism, apologise and make amends. This furore could have been handled so much better."

Wahaca told PRWeek that staff would never have been charged in a walk-out and that it had quickly moved to clarify its policy.

Although the Twitter response was largely negative, Miers did receive some support for her views about hanging businesses out to dry on social media.

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