23rd May 2017
Casual dining chain Wahaca has admitted legal liability for the outbreak of norovirus last year that saw 200 staff and 160 diners fall ill.
The company closed nine restaurants around the country at last year, starting with its Manchester site in 26 October. It then closed eight more as it became apparent that it was not an isolated incident. Although a precise cause of the incident could not be pinpointed, Wahaca co-founders Mark Selby and Thomasina Jean “Tommi” Miers believe the outbreak originated with a supplier.
Selby said: “Since the outbreak of suspected norovirus in a number of our restaurants last year we have worked tirelessly and in full co-operation with various public bodies to ensure that our response to the situation as a whole, and especially to those who were affected, has been swift, personable and fair. Tommi and I have personally written to almost all of those affected who contacted us directly, and spoken to a number of them. The well-being of our customers and staff remain our top priority. We continue to work hard to resolve a small number of claims on an individual basis, handling them openly and honestly.”
Public health law firm Irwin Mitchell, representing a group of diners who fell ill, hoped to secure “swift justice” for their clients after the admission of liability.
Among their clients is 16-year-old Sarah Cousins, from Oxfordshire, who was hospitalised with severe gastric symptoms after visiting the White City branch of the Mexican restaurant franchise at the end of October. The A’ Level student, who has Type-1 diabetes, went on to develop ketoacidosis as a result of the illness and required treatment in hospital in order to recover.
Amandeep Dhillon, partner and head of the specialist public health team at Irwin Mitchell who is representing the family along with six other diners, said: ““Her story is an important reminder of the seriousness of gastric illness outbreaks. While many people do recover within days, such illnesses can have a lasting impact on victims and – in cases like Sarah’s – lead to further complicating and serious health problems.
“It is also imperative that lessons are learned from her case in an effort to ensure that the problems she faced are simply not repeated.”
Selby says that the norovirus outbreak had been a “life-changing” experience that has caused the restaurant group’s founders to look again at every aspect of the business, although he stressed that Public Health England did not find fault with the group’s systems.
He said: “It was just a very weird experience. It is not something you could put your finger on and say ‘that’s it, stop it’. By the time it worked through the system, i.e. by the time customers were actually calling in sick, it had already washed out. It has a 48-hour effect and so people were coming in on a Thursday and then being sick maybe on a Saturday and by Tuesday calling up.”
The problems, which came just ahead the restaurant brand’s 10th anniversary, have caused the founders to completely re-examine every aspect of the business.
Selby added. “Ten years in and we were thinking about doing lots of celebrations but what this has made us realise is, okay, let’s look at the whole business again. Obviously, we have got to try and address what has happened. We can’t just sit back and go ‘well it wasn’t our fault’. It is very difficult because it could literally be anything but there are a couple of indicators from Public Health England who have said ‘it might be these products’ so we have had to be prudent with regards to certain suppliers we work with. We have looked at suppliers and asked ourselves how we get ourselves as bulletproof as we can to make sure that this never happens again.”