As Mexican eatery Wahaca prepares to open its doors for business in Brixton, will Brixton open its arms to chain restaurants?
Wahaca is making all the right noises as it cosies up to the community, finds Luke Massey.
You can see the marketisation of Brixton without taking one step out of the tube station. Before you get to the top of the stairs you’re presented with the polished wood and impeccable glass face of an investment opportunity: Starbucks is gazing at you through the wall of the station.
It’s looking at you. You gaze back at the window and see your own reflection.
You are the investment opportunity.
The inexorable rise of Brixton as a social and cultural hub makes it no surprise that it has become an attractive proposition for property developers, estate agents, coffee chains and high street fashion outlets.
And the backlash against some of the more abrasive of these new entrants has been telling. When Foxtons estate agents opened up a typically lurid outlet on Brixton Road in the old Speedy Noodle site, it was met with all the fanfare of a family funeral.
With the voracious property market in Brixton causing local concern over accelerating gentrification, it wasn’t long before the minimalist sterility of Foxtons’ shop-front was disrupted by a message of greeting from a Brixton resident: ‘Yuppies out’.
It made me wonder if it was ever possible for business chains to come into communities and do it right. Can a big business be a good neighbour? And what would that look like?
Mark Selby, co-founder of Mexican restaurant chain Wahaca, which opens on Atlantic Road on 16 October, is no stranger to the debate going on in Brixton.
When I asked him if he was more wary about setting up this branch than any other, his answer was straight up: ‘Yes. Definitely.’
‘If I am being honest I have always been a bit scared of “the gentrification argument”. We’ve read a lot about the recent new openings and new concepts that people living in the area don’t feel fit with Brixton’s vibe or community. So we have been very conscious of this and wanted to avoid a debate on arrogant big brands entering a community.’
But while others have avoided the debate by simply ignoring it – often at their peril – Mark and co-founder Tommi Miers have been drawing up a menu of community engagement that they hope will set them apart.
From poetry nights for local Latin American poets group SLAP, to working with local artists and architects, to fundraising for community groups, as well a whopping investment in restoring the old Railway Hotel/Brady’s Bar site to its ‘former glory’, I sense that there really is some meat to Wahaca’s claims to local integration. They’re even developing a new beer with Brixton Brewery called Lupulo.
Once the site had been sold off by Lambeth Council, all hopes of creating a community centre there were dashed, and once in the hands of a private developer the rental rates soon meant that the only viable tenant would be a business which could afford it. Enter Wahaca.
‘We are not a big bad corporate beast’
Of course Mark readily admits that they’re a chain restaurant, as much as they don’t feel like it, he tells me, but ‘we are not a big bad corporate beast, we’re a company that has grown, granted, but has grown organically and carefully without ever changing the principles it was started with.’
Those principles have included an award-winning commitment to environmental sustainability. The site on Atlantic Road will be one of the most sustainably built restaurants in London, Mark says, with all wood used in the refurbishment being reused, recycled or sustainably sourced; with no water boilers, where the heat generated from walk-in fridges & freezers will heat water going into the toilets and kitchen; and with industry-leading energy efficient air conditioning and extraction systems from the kitchen.
‘We are restoring a loved building with an incredible history. We are restoring it properly and sustainably and will open up the space to local poetry groups, community groups and schools to use, enjoy and learn in.’ Mark set the architects researching the history of the building, and were amazed to find images of the ‘Swiss Garden’ from the turn of the century, where Brixton’s well-to-do would sip their drinks in a floral open-air space. Mark insisted upon designs for the refurbishment recreating elements of this historic feature.
But creation of the space is one thing, and how it’s used is another. Current plans involve ‘social projects and events including co-hosting a very exciting Brixton Day of the Dead event in November at Number 6 Somerleyton Road, where all of our profits will go to the local Brixton community.’
‘The board were sceptical’
Mark and Tommi had their work cut out in persuading the board at Wahaca that coming to Brixton was the right thing to do: ‘The board were sceptical I guess because of all the negativity around bigger businesses opening in Brixton. But Tommi and I tried tirelessly over a year to persuade them that long-term we believed we could and would be accepted because of everything we’re doing.’
Given that Mark knows as well as I do the kind of reception which chains can face when coming to Brixton, I was intrigued about what made them push for it – especially when he tells me that, after all the money they’ve put into it, he doesn’t expect the site to break even for some time.
‘A lot of our team live in and around Brixton. Our architect lives in Brixton, our General Manager has worked and lived here for many years and various suppliers we have worked with over a long period of time live here. Tommi and myself have spent lots of time in Brixton and have always loved the idea of having a Wahaca here. Internally and externally people are always saying to me it has the most vibrant and ethical feel… “Wahaca would be great there”.’
Ultimately, Mark says, ‘Wahaca is not a one model business. We design our business to suit the local area and not the other way around and this is the key to why we believed Wahaca and Brixton could work and it’s why we are now really excited about what we are doing.’
Time will tell how Wahaca is received in Brixton. But I think that it’s a credit to the strength of community in Brixton that companies are increasingly seeing the need to integrate, work with, and give something back to the community here.
People are often quite rightly sceptical about “corporate social responsibility”, but I would like to think that embedding such principles in a genuine way into everything a business does really can bring positive results.
Perhaps Mark’s ultimate goal is that, one day soon when you’re wandering down Atlantic Road, you will walk past Wahaca’s window, you’ll see the hybrid reflection of yourself and the people inside, and you won’t see an investment opportunity, you’ll see a community.
Maybe it’s aiming high, but if all businesses had that vision it would be a step in the right direction.
[…] (Read more here.) […]
Far too much symbolic weight is being ascribed to the opening of a restaurant. No such kerfuffle arose from the opening of the several mobile phone outlets on the high street, outlets that represent companies with enormously larger global footprints than the company referred to in this article. Those mobile phone shops opened without so much as a peep, as did Superdrug, that rather uncuddly national corporation. It makes infinitely more sense to whinge about these or perhaps even the McDonald’s on the corner of Acre lane. But no. Not a peep on that front.
So why do people like the author of this article look with such suspicion on restaurants such as this? I can only conclude that it is down to class, that vilest motive. The measured horror of the statement “You are the investment opportunity,” reeks of sappy, ill-thought-out leftism. I am afraid that this indicates strongly that class is the reason for the affected horror on show here.
What callow youths such as Massey seem to disregard is that not so long ago Brixton faced the possibility of outright annihilation. At no time in the last 50 years has the neighbourhood been in better shape. Whining about improvements is plain idiotic.
I agree with much you say. Curiously though, you don’t seem to have read the article. The quote you cited referred to Starbucks: a company with a huge and negative global footprint. I certainly don’t take the approach you suggest, and I describe Wahaca’s company ethos as better than many. So your comments seem to be misdirected.
What about people who are on a low income or on benefits due to illness. The new things such as Wahaca are too expensive? A main meal for 5 pounds in a cafe I can do. 10 or 12 is too high for me and many others.
Jenny. The same thing happens the other way around. I would love to go out and get a good value meal somewhere other than a fried chicken shop or a kebab shop. However, I can’t find it. To be blunt about it, if you’re on a low income or benefits then maybe eat at home and save some money. Don’t expect some state-directed dictat (whether via planning policy or otherwise) to arrange dining availability solely around you. Honestly, the sense of entitlement that some in Brixton have is unbelievable.
I welcome Wahaca’s long-awaited arrival. The two Mexican options in the neighbourhood are inadequate. The Brady’s building has been derelict for more than 10 years. The refurbishment has brought back to life a beautiful and historic building that continues its hospitality history. Haters are always going to hate.
[…] Click here for Luke’s latest piece on Wahaca opening in Brixton next week […]
I wonder. Would we be complaining if a chain opened a pub where a deralict pub used to be? Shouldn’t we be pleased that at least it’s going to be a bar / restaurant – not another Tesco or Sainsbury’s. Or worse, empty and left to rot.
Brixton has been a fantastic location for chains for as long as I can remember, especially the Fried chicken kind, but what is curious to me is that Kentucky, Morleys, Rooster etc. never get the slightest mention from the anti chain gang word and winge-smiths. It seems to me to be a little hard to justify such selective discrimination.
Also, KFC is a BIG chain… is their treatment of chickens ethical? Anyway, that seems well-supported by loads of people.
Luke – any news on the mooted Waitrose? As you say, if big boys are moving in, they may as well be ethical… not that I could necessarily afford it!
Natalie – it’s a MEXICAN restaurant so the LatAm poetry fits. And lots of Latin Americans live locally (and work / eat at the existing Mex/ Colombian restaurants in Village).
I’m sure lots of Afro-Carib events will be held at the cultural centre. Why insist on a mono-culture, when the area has always changed over time? (It was quite posh in Victorian times apparently…)
Also don’t all businesses exist to make money? I wouldn’t run a restaurant for fun… but then I hate cooking and working late.
I have live in Brixton for 30 years and am constantly amazed by the heat generated by the opening of a few cafes in what was once an underused part of the market or a restaurant in a site that has been derelict for almost two decades.
Presumably those of the “small business good, large business bad” no longer go to the Ritzy, now that it is part of the Picture House chain, or the Academy, no that it carries the 02 label.
They are all businesses and until one of them starts paying their staff the living, rather than minimum, wage and recognisees their worker’s unions, there is little to choose between them. Until then I will go to the café or restaurant that serves the best coffee or food.
“Because I think the clearer an idea of that we have as a community, the more we can build a model for future chains coming here.” said Luke.
Why are you so keen on encouraging more big chains here, Luke?
What’s wrong with supporting local independent traders, many of whom are now struggling in the face of big chains like Wahaca turning up and buying more properties?
I don’t want any more big chains in Brixton. Why do you?
I don’t. And I think you’ve either misread what I’ve said or you’re wilfully misunderstanding me.
Why didn’t you quote the sentence before that as well? It read:
“The point of the article was, if chains are coming here, what can they do to actually give something back to the community. Because I think the clearer an idea of that we have as a community, the more we can build a model for future chains coming here.”.
The operative words were ‘if chains are coming here’. Nothing I’ve said is encouraging chains to come here, but the fact is that they are. And I think we should know how to act collectively to get the best out of the situation for Brixton, rather than just accept it with passivity.
We need to do more to support independent businesses, which I’ve done in words and actions for years, so I don’t really feel like I need to prove my credentials on that front.
The said properties have remained underused and derelict. Big chain, little chain, no chain…get over it. The reality is business is indeed business.
if the area benefits through jobs and regeneration then go for it
if i stand a chance of gainful employment and am able to feed my family… Then I welcome ever single ruddy chain to the area
Chains exist as a result of customers buying into them.
so if you want that to change i suggest you get on the customers backs.
Natalie’s question regarding employment is a good one – very difficult to imagine concrete ways in which Wahacca can prioritise recruitment from the Brixton area (wouldn’t this be legally difficult?)
Also – Brixton is becoming an increasingly expensive place to live. Are they planning to pay the living wage?
That said, it would be churlish to totally dismiss the efforts they are making. Luke Massey is right to note that it is testimony to the strength of social solidarity in Brixton that companies operating in the area have to behave in a more respectful/responsible way than they do in other parts of London.
Thanks very much for reading the piece Luke.
I think you’re right that it’s difficult to recruit locally – I’m not sure what form that process can take, apart from saying you particularly welcome applicants from Brixton.
And the living wage question is a very good one as well. I don’t know – but people should certainly let them know that’s what they expect of them.
What a dreadful load of uncritical, brown-nosing fluff.
It sounds like the Blog have already cosied up to Wahaca for some advertising and want to stay in their good books.
Why are Wahaca here now? Because there’s money to be made and not because they give the slightest hoot about the ‘community. And so what if they’re buying beer from the Brixton Beer company? They’re another bunch of middle class new arrivals, cashing in on the new-whiter, safer, more lucrative Brixton.
Thanks for the comment. I think I made pretty clear that the reason businesses are coming to Brixton is because it’s an attractive business opportunity. The point of the article was, if chains are coming here, what can they do to actually give something back to the community. Because I think the clearer an idea of that we have as a community, the more we can build a model for future chains coming here.
Or we can just moan about it and accept it.
Interesting that you equate whiter with safer.
Oh come on, they are contributing to the local economy. Personally I dislike Mexican restaurants but let’s all take a chill pill … no big deal people. A lot of negativity for nothing. Do you prefer to have a derelict pub in the corner? I have lived in brixton for 12 years + and very happy to see the changes. RELAX SAYS FRANK.
You’re taking the piss right? Or did you seriously write “chill pill”, address us as “people” and say “relax says frank” without irony?
oh come on, lets try and be positive. not all chains are created equally. and some actually do well for the areas they operate…look n the bright side, at least its not another tesco/sainsbury site
Well let’s see how many ‘local afro Caribbean events’ happen here,and how many ‘local people are employed there’ and how the ‘longstanding local communities members are welcomed there’
Yes I’m interested to see Natalie – and that’s a good point about afro-caribbean events perhaps not fitting with the Mexican/latin american aesthetic and so making them less likely. I know that the branch will be employing ‘about 45 people from as close to the restaurant as possible,’ though I don’t know any more than that, and that’s obviously not a concrete commitment.
I would love to see the reaction if these sorts of comments were reposted with “white British” instead of “afro Caribbean”. The level of reverse racism among some in south London is truly incredible, but pandering to a naughty and disruptive child will have that effect.
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