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.