Seafood Insight: Wahaca brings sustainability to the table
This year, Wahaca won MSC UK’s award for best restaurant menu category. All of the seafood dishes on its menu are MSC-certified sustainable, the only restaurant in the UK to make this level of commitment.
We caught up with Tommi Miers, founder and passionate advocate for sustainable seafood, at Wahaca’s restaurant on Charlotte Street in London, to explore further the motivation behind these commitments.
Wahaca has made a great commitment to reduce its environmental footprint in general; how do you think the restaurant industry can raise the bar for sustainability?
Any business these days has to have the environment as part of its consideration and it seems both naive and short-sighted not to include sustainability in the business model. We now have 650 employees and run 15 restaurants and these commitments give our business a useful voice.
We prove it’s possible to be a growing company with a successful business model and still respect the environment. Sustainability can and should be incorporated into business models because making money and being green are definitely not mutually exclusive.
As restaurateurs, we have a huge responsibility in what we decide to serve on our menus. Producing food has the biggest environmental impact of any activity on the planet; more than driving, more than flying, more than most things. To serve food without accounting for the environmental impacts seems pretty old-fashioned.
What is the greatest motivation for this commitment and what is the greatest challenge to keeping these commitments?
The biggest challenge for us is supply. Opening up the market and having a more varied supply would help us a lot. We’re always questioning our fish suppliers on this.
There’s amazing seafood out there that is not sustainable. So we have to be quite scrupulous, like not putting tuna on the menu even though our customers would love to eat it.
There’s also a lack of fresh British MSC product which is something we would love to stock. Recently we realised that the Scottish haddock we knew about was MSC certified, which was a revelation to us.
We never stop looking for new products whether sardines caught off the south coast, or mussel fisheries up in Scotland; anything that allows us to put more exciting dishes on the menus works for us, as long as it is sustainable. Sadly this does tie our hands sometimes, so that putting things like tuna and octopus on the menu becomes problematic even though we know it would increase sales.
People are fighting for change and as change is part of Wahaca’s ethos this is a good thing but trying to persuade other people that change is a good thing is harder. Eventually we have to confront the challenges that a global population of 9bn people by 2050 bring. There is enough food to feed the world – it’s just a question of what food you eat, how you deliver it to people and how much you are wasting in the process.
There are solutions. We’re a clever race of people and there’s no reason why we can’t devise better, more intelligent strategies but we have to work together and for the greater good. This is what our Pig Idea campaign we initiated last year is about.
Wahaca is at the leading edge of seafood sustainability; what impact does sourcing sustainable seafood have, and how useful is the ecolabel in assisting diners when choosing from the menu?
We always try hard not to lecture our customers on the sustainable choices we make because we want our customers to have fun when they are with us, not feel brow-beaten. In any case we could always be doing things better. We’ve worked hard behind the scenes to maintain the MSC ecolabel on our menu and we think that with any luck the customer will start to notice these things so that when they go to the supermarket to buy fish it might have some impact on their buying habits.
It gives us a competitive edge, and we’re also pushing our suppliers to offer more MSC-certified seafood. Many of my friends are chefs and patrons of single site restaurants, some Michelin starred. I feel an inclusive and warm attitude from them and I sometimes question why this is so, and I often draw the conclusion that it’s our commitment to sustainability that has something to do with it. And I feel that this has a positive impact on the recruitment and retention of our staff – they really care about the environment and respect that we do too.
Wahaca won the MSC’s award in the best menu category this year; what does this public recognition mean for your business?
It is wonderful that we are being recognised for what we are doing. It would be a lot easier if we were only profit motivated and always went for the cheapest option. Instead, we spend quite a lot of money and training working hard, not just on our menus, but on the build of each restaurant site and every aspect of our business to lessen our environmental footprint. Recognition of these efforts is great.
It’s really great that the MSC has such an iconic logo. With any luck over the years, people will start to look for it as I have started to.
What’s your own favourite MSC-certified dish?
We have a ceviche tostada which is delicious – it’s fresh and laced with a gentle, fiery salsa that brings alive the sweetness of the prawn and scallops. It is really light and delicious. I am still completely involved in dish development but I’ve hired a Mexican chef full time now. He seemed quite taken aback when he learned that we had all these rules and stipulations about what we can and can’t put on our menu but it is hard to put tuna tostadas or octopus tacos on the menu when we’ve made a certain commitment and then can’t find an accredited sustainable supply. On one hand, this stance handcuffs us, but it also forces us to think on our toes.
What next for Wahaca when it comes to sustainable seafood? Can diners expect any new MSC-certified dishes?
We are in the midst of some intense menu development. We’ve got a new restaurant that opened earlier this year, called DF Mexico in the Truman Brewery in London. DF is more fast food and fun, but still MSC-certified so hopefully we’ll reach new audiences. We’re always looking for new products to make a more exciting menu.
We’re opening in Cardiff, so also taking the MSC logo out of London, spreading the love for the fish. I am also taking an assembly about the MSC certification at my local primary school.
On a personal note, as a mother, celebrated chef and a businesswoman, does the sustainability of fish stocks for future generations concern you?
For me it’s completely obvious. I’ve got children and I want them to grow up eating seafood.
It’s hard with fish because the sustainability changes all the time. Even someone who knows about the issues finds it hard to keep abreast of it all from year to year. That’s why what the MSC is doing is so crucial because you have to be able to easily inform the consumer about the right choices. If the consumer is confused he switches off, whereas if you make it clear and easy to understand, then I think people want to make better choices – but you have to give them the tools to do that.
We have to face our impact on the planet rather than feel overwhelmed by it. We need to tackle problems head on and look for the positives. There are solutions out there. Stocks can replenish but only for so long – we have to work together fast. The more we can raise awareness, the more we can solve the problems.
Human beings through history have shown a lack of concern for the environment until it is too late. The Easter Islanders cut down the last tree and died out as a race. The Mayans did the same thing in the Americas – by cutting down all the trees they created soil erosion and were wiped out over decades after being a ruling race for a thousand years. At the moment, with our fish consumption and the rate at which we are cutting down our rainforests we are on a similar projection. It is up to all of us to try to make a difference.
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