Wahaca founder criticised after waiters forced to pay the bill of 'dine and dash' customers

Bill Gardner
Thomasina Miers has been under fire after Wahaca waiters were told to pay back unpaid bills - Getty Images Europe

The founder of the “ethical” restaurant chain Wahaca has been criticised after waiters were discovered to be paying the bills of runaway diners.

Thomasina Miers, a former Masterchef winner, faced a public outcry last night over claims that her business routinely punished staff for so-called "dine and dash" customers.

It came after a waiter in a North London branch was told that his wages would be docked because his customers had disappeared. The incident was witnessed by Sarah Hayward, a former council leader, who told of her disgust on Twitter.

Her post was soon shared widely, and hundreds of outraged customers threatened to boycott Wahaca. In a statement, the Unite union accused the restaurant chain of “wage theft”.

Responding to the row, Ms Thomasina, who co-founded Wahaca in 2007, complained that she had been “hung out” before having a chance to respond. She then admitted the waiter had indeed been asked to pay back £3, but insisted it was "absolutely not standard policy" to deduct wages. "We like to champion our people, not diddle them,” she wrote.

But other former Wahaca staff soon came forward to claim that they too had been docked wages. Others claimed the practice was widespread across the food industry.

Daniel Wheeler, 26, who worked at Wahaca’s flagship branch in Waterloo for ten months in 2017, said managers warned him about the so-called ‘dine and dash’ rule on his first day. He later claimed to have witnessed a barman being frogmarched to a cashpoint to withdraw his own money after mistakenly accepting a fake £50 note.

“Many of the workers come from abroad, and don’t understand their rights. I think Wahaca sometimes take advantage of that,” he said.

He also criticised Ms Thomasina, who has championed fairtrade produce at Wahaca, and last year praised her staff as “bright sparks”.

“It’s all very well to tell the world that you love your staff, and you want fair pay for all, but you’ve got to act that way behind the scenes,” he told the Telegraph.

Another former staff member claimed they were forced to cover a full £40 food and drink bill during their first week in the job.

Ms Thomasina set up Wahaca two years after winning the BBC's Masterchef contest in 2005. The chain was hit by an outbreak of norovirus in 2016 during which hundreds of staff and diners fell ill.

Wahaca said yesterday that the rule would be relaxed so that staff would never be asked to foot the bill for runaway customers, unless they were somehow “complicit”. The staff handbook would also be updated to make the rule “clearer”.

“We realise that our policy on how to deal with this has not been clear enough and we apologise to our teams for this,” the spokesman said.