Interview with Wahaca CEO Mark Selby

On employee happiness, building effective teams and how Wahaca's culture has developed

At Chillisauce, we spend all day coming up withcorporate events and team building days. We work hard to make employees happy, build better teams, and help companies across the UK become better places to work.

This week, our own Michael Chidzey goes behind the scenes ofWahaca, one of the UK’s fastest-growing restaurant chains, to meet a man who shares our passion. He talks with company founder Mark Selby about employee happiness, building effective teams, and how the Wahaca family brought us Brits ‘real’ Mexican food.

Setting the scene

In 2007, Mark Selby teamed up with Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers to set up a restaurant in Covent Garden, specialising in 'real' Mexican, as opposed to Tex-Mex. Since then,Wahacahas grown all over London and now across the UK. They've also launched other Mexican restaurant conceptsDF MexicoandBurrito Mamaas well as set up other projects like theLondon Day Of The Deadfestival and street food trucks.

Chillisauce's Michael Chidzey (MC) talks to Wahaca's Mark Selby (MS)...

MC:How did Wahaca grow from one restaurant in Covent Garden to where it is today?

MS:We started off in 2007. From the beginning my aim was to build a truly sustainable restaurant business that could be a group chain, but with individuality in each one. We wanted to grow slowly. We really didn’t want to rush anything so that we would keep hold of the family feel. We made sure we picked our teams carefully, so they enjoy the culture and that we would maintain the experience that we started with.

We’ve grown and now have 25 Wahacas. We also started DF Mexico and Burrito Mama. Tom[co-founder Thomasina Miers]and I get itchy feet if we sit around doing the same thing for too long. We both know we do burritos really well, so created grilled burrito takeaways. We know there’s a great market that loves Mexican food and the opportunity within the Mexican space is growing. We thought that we’ve got Wahaca and burritos, but nothing in the middle like a Nandos-style concept. These both offer great Mexican food, delivered very quickly so you come and leave whenever you want.

One of our big things is innovation. We're always thinking how do we keep doing things differently, bigger, better. Whether it is doing a big festival, working with different food types, using new technology - whatever it is we’re always challenging ourselves

MC:What do you mean by a truly sustainable business?

MS:We truly want to make a difference from a sustainable point-of-view. We have an ethical angle, but that’s not actually what our sustainability is about. Sustainability is about using good local ingredients, being carbon neutral, and looking at staff engagement and happiness. Many employees haven’t worked for a company like us before. We do listen to ideas, we do care and we do want to make things better.

MC:I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody from Wahaca who isn’t incredibly happy. And I eat here a lot. How would you describe the culture?

MS:It is very organic. Ultimately, when we set up the company, we wanted a fun environment. We wanted everyone that works with us to know us. We used to have a party every four weeks when we just had the Covent Garden Restaurant. We were all young, so thought might as well. Having fun gets a bit harder as you get bigger, for example working out when to do something, where to do it, and not everybody can as they have families now. But we still do lots of cool and different things. There’s a funk committee that is tasked with coming up with fun things everybody can get involved with. We have a big summer BBQ each year and we do a bigChristmas party. We also try to encourage each site to dofun team building exercises.

MC:Why do you organise things like Christmas parties and Summer parties?

MS:More just want to say thank you to the guys, kind of a reward, let them have fun, meet people - it is really going back to being a family. And it's not just about the day job, fun things like this encourage the guys to come up with ideas. We also have the WOW awards, which is a big dinner with 180 people from our management team with speeches, awards and performances.

MC:What other activities do you organise?

MS:We've organised away days where staff get to learn a new skill like street art or something they find interesting. We do a Masterchef challenge every year, where any of our chefs can enter, where we take finalists to Mexico. We also encourage staff to do things outside of their day job, like helping with festivals, events and social activities.

MC:So every time you open a new restaurant, do you build a new team from scratch and how do you get them working together effectively?

MS:For a new restaurant team, a 1/3 will be internal and 2/3 will be external - roughly. We tend to try to move a manager we have promoted. One of the things we do on open days is get people who don’t know each other to interact. We put everybody in teams and write songs, work as a team - you can be shy and embarrassed but as long as you’re not just completely backing away from what we’re asking to do. We do quite a lot of team work tasks. They’ll also have a night out and train together.

MC:What advice do you have for readers looking to build new teams?

MS:That side is really important. We’ve got very good at the integration of people in new teams. We always bring people over the strongest members of other teams and get them to talk to new teams. We then try and break down the inhibitions and the barriers, usually getting people to do something completely outside of their day-to-day job so they see each other from a different angle. We found the one thing that works really well is bowling. We also do lots of team dinners. Our focus is putting people in an atmosphere that is relaxed, where they are not being judged and just having fun together.

MC:Why would somebody stay working at Wahaca?

MS:We tend to look after people and want to give people opportunities to grow and have fun. Not only is Wahaca a place where your voice can be heard, but there is the opportunity to do something to develop yourself. And we encourage it. For example, we realised a while ago that our KP's[kitchen porters]weren’t being developed. We now offer English classes to everybody that would like them, and have five head chefs that used to be KP's. We're really proud of that.

MC:Are there any metrics that you look at to measure staff engagement?

MS:Yes - we do a big staff survey ever year. This year, it’s going to go out to more than a 1000 people. Hopefully about 800/900 people will complete it and we want to get the NPS[employee Net Promoter Score]up. They answer questions like would you recommend working at Wahaca to a friend for example.

[Other questions the survey covers include do you feel happy? Do you feel your opinion is valued at work? Do you feel listened to? Do you feel the company follows the values it sets?]

Our aim is to improve that every year, which we’ve achieved over the last three years. We can easily see if we’re doing a good job.

MC:What do you do if people aren't happy?

MS:If people hated working here then it would depress us. If there is an issue, whether a management issue, front-of-house or backend - we create discussions groups based on the back of the problems to identify issues and how to clear the problem. We want people to know that it has been highlighted. We also do a departure check with anybody leaving.

MC:Last thing, in your industry what is the biggest frustration?

MS:For me, the hardest bit of this business is time to get whole company together. I wish we could just work 9-5pm in an office where everyone could be together, but it's not possible. Every customer that walks in needs a table and we have people located all over the country. That's the biggest frustration. We can’t have many one on ones. Obviously, when we do get everybody together, within a salaried environment, it's crucial to make the most of that time. I would love to create the happiest company in the world, and if that was possible I would certainly invest.

Happiness is a serious business

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