Mexican restaurant chain Wahaca came under fire after a member of waiting staff was told to pay part of the bill when customers left before paying.
A tweet from a customer at the company’s Kentish Town venue in north London last weekend (15 June) outlined what happened.
Hi @wahaca just eaten in your Kentish Town restaurant for the last time.— Sarah Hayward (@Sarah_Hayward) June 15, 2019
Ppl next to us left without paying and their server is made to foot the bill from his wages. Apparently company policy. Utterly shameful employment practice.
Food's great, company is crap.@thomasinamiers
Wahaca responded the following morning, in a bid to defend its policy on waiting staff paying for walk outs.
We’d like to assure you that this is not our standard policy, only in cases of total negligence will a individual be held accountable, which is very rare. This will not be deducted from the waiter & we will be looking into making sure we have clarity on our policy internally— wahaca (@wahaca) June 16, 2019
Pub operators had their say on the incident and licensee of the Swan in Bampton, Devon Paul Berry said he would never dream of making his staff pay.
He added: “It’s diabolical and [Wahaca] needs to be honest and needs to be shamed.
“I used to work for a guy who used to take it off the staff if a bottle of wine was corked.
"If you want to keep your staff happy, it’s a no-go area. Why kill staff morale? Take a look at the place in Manchester (Hawksmoor) when a member of staff gave out the wrong bottle of wine.
“The venue didn’t sack her or punish her, it was an accident. A bloody expensive accident but all the same, an accident.”
Licensee of the Guinea Grill in Mayfair, central London Oisín Rogers said: “Firstly I felt a bit sorry for Wahaca because it could have been a one off, isolated incident where a manager had overstepped the mark.
“However, when it escalated and I saw the tone of the tweets from the operators, I began to get a bit suspicious of it.
"It turns out it was Wahaca’s policy, in the handbook that it would deduct the full amount, including service, of walk outs from staff.
Rogers went on to outline his outrage about how the restaurant group handled the incident on its social media.
He said: “[Wahaca] didn’t reply to the original tweet for more than 12 hours and it had been retweeted something like 2,000 times.
“What should have been a minor restaurant story escalated to the second most read item on BBC News was a disaster for Wahaca.”
He said how he has dealt with similar instances in his business previously, emphasising how it was not a regular occurance.
Rogers added: “If people are absolutely intent on walking out without paying they will do it, but as far as I know from contacts I have in the industry, it’s very rare.
“It is certainly not something I would budget for or expect and on the very odd occasion it happens, I would have the utmost sympathy for the member of staff because they are usually heart broken and feel very guilty about it but, it is not their fault.”
Licensee of the Unruly Pig in Bromeswell, Suffolk, Brendan Padfield is no stranger to dine and dash as in 2016 two customers left the pub without paying their bill.
He said: “[Wahaca] has no business deducting from its team members in the first place. If, as it seems, it is unlikely the staff were complicit, then those staff involved would be aiding and abetting a criminal offence.
“Call in the police rather than hit the pockets of hard-working team members who are not really in a position to control whether a customer pays or does a runner.
“I have a very low tolerance on runners. Three years ago the Unruly Pig hit the national headlines as we had a couple do a runner after eating and drinking a £160 meal.
“I had footage on CCTV and I went straight to the press. The publicity soon identified the culprits who were arrested and a prosecution followed.
“For me it gave out a strong message to would-be thieves that they should never mess with the Unruly Pig, otherwise their sins (or rather the CCTV) will surely find them out. Suffice to say we have had no runners since.”
Padfield echoed Rogers’ comments on customers leaving without paying and highlighted how it could impact hospitality workers.
“If customers are set on doing a runner they will find a way by hook or by crook e.g. one slipping out to the loo while another exits a side entrance," he said.
“It is a tough enough job working in hospitality in any event so I don’t think it at all fair to ever hit the pockets of team members who really are not in position to stop a theft.”
Claire Alexander, who runs the Ebrington Arms in Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire and the Killingworth Castle in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, said: “It’s a pretty disgusting policy if this nature goes on repeatedly in chain restaurants and companies.
“I run two freeholds and our staff are like family. I wouldn’t dream of ever treating staff like that.
"Did they only change their policy once they had been outed? It is similar to chains using tips towards wages. These big companies seem to find ways around avoiding paying tax and wages.
“It gives the small independents a bad name as we do not operate like that.
"Customers are voting with their feet a bit more and choosing more ethical businesses like ours as a result. The tide appears to be rightly turning against them.”
From a legal point of view, law firm Nelsons’ associate and solicitor Melanie Morton is part of the solicitor’s employment law team.
She said: “The basic position is you can't deduct money from someone's wage unless it is for one of the things the law permits or you have their consent.
"One of the things the law permits is things like overpayments in wages.
“In the event an employer overpays someone by accident, they can recoup that money back without asking for it. Anything else, there has to be consent and that tends to be found in the contract of employment.
“Typically there will be a clause that says something like 'we may deduct, from your salary, any money that you owe to us at any time'.”
However, if a company did not have a specific clause in the employment contract, this would be an unlawful deduction of wages.
Morton added: “If it is not an overpayment of wages, they [the employee] are not contractually obliged to do it [let employer take money from wages] or they haven't given consent and the employer decides to take money from the employee's wages, that is an unlawful deduction of wages.
“The employee can issue a claim and the tribunal to recover it. An unlawful deduction of wages claim to the employment tribunal, if it was a substantial deduction or a series of deductions, that has the ultimate effect of breaching trust and confidence.
“This could result in someone resigning and claiming constructive dismissal (this is where you resign because your position has been made untenable i.e. my boss is taking money out of my salary without my consent, they are not treating me properly and I have no choice but to now go because they are not listening to me).
“That's a claim that only people with two years' service can bring, which actually cuts out a lot of workers in the leisure industry.”