Robin Rowland is a man who prepares for interviews. Last month, I made my way to the newly opened YO! Sushi site on Tottenham Court Road, where Rowland and his PR team were based for the final marketing push around the opening of UK restaurant number 76.
When I sat down with the YO! CEO, I noticed the stacks of paper he had in front of him, which throughout our conversation he frequently refers to. He had opening timelines, new management structures, the ranking of other UK casual dining brands, as well as a guest list for an event he is due to attend that evening. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, as they say. Throughout the following hour, Rowland and I chatted over cups of green tea about the industry, high-end sushi perception, the future of YO! and what he has learned during the 17 years of service he has given to his beloved company.
Back to business
Rowland returned to YO! as CEO at the end 2015, when Mayfair Equity Partners bought the company from Quilvest – a deal which valued the business at £81m. In the two years (2014 and 2015) spent away from his CEO post, while working as executive chairman of YO!, it seems a quiet frustration built up within Rowland. A frustration over how YO! had been run and the consequential shift in customer perception that followed.
“I was angry,” he says. “The company hadn’t been run by an entrepreneur, it had been run by a corporate person. A lot of the love and care wasn’t there. Since coming back, I have had to change the whole team, which is not my preferred style. It’s only me and Mike [Lewis] left really – he’s the exec chef. It’s not just about business – it’s about making sure we’re not doing stuff we’re not proud of. I’m back on a mission.”
When he returned with Mayfair, Rowland wanted to address his four key areas – a list that he often speaks publicly about: product, promotion, property, people. Like our interviewee, I too can prepare for interviews, and query that he usually talks about a fifth ‘P’ on the end of that list. What happened to Profit?
“Of course,” he shrugs. “The fifth one has to be profit. I’m a profit monster. But when I came back, I had to address the four areas that had gone a bit awry.”
Now, after nearly two years of the latest mission, Rowland has re-instilled those vital elements that he believes make YO! what it is, what it was. The focus on freshness and provenance is now understood by the team; the brand refresh has taken place and is being marketed correctly; UK growth is on track and there will be 100 YO! restaurants across the globe by the end of 2017; and, most importantly, the YO! teams are feeling valued and are fully behind the brand.
“This was never a restaurant,” says Rowland. “This was always a brand masquerading as a restaurant. We used the guys behind Aston Martin for our redesign. I don’t like working with restaurant designers who think they can tell me how to run a restaurant. Half have now been refurbished and then we’re opening new ones where we’ve really changed the design. We got our mojo back, then we got our people back.”
For Rowland, Brexit is a toxic subject, but it’s one that is “important and needs to be dealt with”. He knows how vital European citizens are to the success of not just YO!, but the industry as a whole. Since that fateful day on 23 June 2016, I am yet to interview a hospitality operator who is cheerily optimistic about the UK’s departure from the EU (granted, we haven’t spoken to Wetherspoon’s Tim Martin yet). In fact, most are passionate about how they can reassure and retain the thousands of people who make-up their workforce.
“Around 45% of our team are non-Brits,” says Rowland. “EU citizens not from the UK. Most have the right to remain, but if they leave, what happens then? You can’t be arrogant about it, as things can get worse.
“It’s also a philosophical thing. I think Britain is in a position worldwide that has an extraordinary collection of restaurants and cultures. It worries me, travelling as much as I do, that we might lose an awful lot if we’re not careful, in terms of flavour and diversity, through this rather strange government behaviour, particularly towards hospitality. You need to be open-minded about employing people from overseas. We need those people. We can’t do it without them.”
In all honesty, this entire article (and dozens of articles to follow) could have been dedicated to the concerns that our interviewee has around Brexit. There are worker worries, cost of goods, the falling pound and overseas relationships among others. As the YO! CEO says: “There’s a price to pay for all of this and there are going to be casualties.”
Oddly enough, what offers our toxic topic an optimistic alternative is, rather bizarrely, the talk of another recession. There’s no question that the larger casual dining brands on the high street have not only offered diners an accessible luxury when eating out, but also increased the knowledge and understanding of world cuisine. Brands like YO!, Nando’s and wagamama, which sit invitingly on hundreds of UK high streets, have brought their version of various cultures to the people of the UK at an affordable price point. Because of this, high-end alternatives are able to take those cuisines, situate them in a far more luxurious environment and hike up the prices for those with a bit more disposable income. Should a recession hit, and that income be slightly more precious, then those eating Mayfair-situated sushi will head to Mayfair-owned instead.
“If there is a serious recession, a lot of people in the high-end sushi joints will downgrade and come back to YO!” says Rowland. “They won’t go to Roka – they’ll come here, because they can eat the same food at a third of the price. I know it’s the same food because I know exactly what their raw ingredients are. It’s just tricked up sushi. It’s all about perception.
“Sushi is more of a commodity than it was. It used to be very aspirational, now you can buy it through Ocado.”
Grab and go, and the future of YO!
At the front of the shiny new Tottenham Court Road site are some fridges, packed full of fresh sushi and various drinks, ready and waiting for the central London lunch rush. This is not something YO! has prioritised in the past. The restaurants are all about sitting alongside a conveyor belt that presents dishes straight from the kitchen – you grab, but then you stay. The new grab and go offer at this site is a big focus for Rowland, and one that has clearly got him quite excited. You can bet that the folks in the Itsu over the road are watching with interest and a hint of trepidation.
“This could be 25% of this place’s turnover and that’s worth having,” he says. “Actually, Itsu has had its own way for way too long. We’ve put the odd fridge in and haven’t got too excited about it, but St Pancras and Terminal 2 [Heathrow] are taking a lot of cash from grab and go. If we can create an amazing shop window in other sites, it will be successful. It’s another part of the brand evolution. Maybe one day we can then do a standalone grab and go kiosk.”
It’s certainly a powerful enough brand to deliver such an offer. The brand recognition that YO! has, not just in the UK but in Europe and further afield, is something that many ambitious restaurant groups would love to have. Its partnership with SSP has taken YO! to travel hubs in Paris and Sydney, and although he is cautious about growing too fast in those types of locations, Rowland believes that if any expansion areas are to increase in pace, it will be here.
“Internationally, I think SSP is excited about YO!” he says. “They want to get going and Kate Swann [CEO of SSP] is not a lady you mess around with, so it might grow a bit faster. SSP in Paris and Sydney are doing brilliantly.”
As for the UK, Rowland believes the company can double in size, eventually operating 150 restaurants here, saying that he has that growth “all mapped out”. After Tottenham Court Road is London Bridge, another bustling travel hub, which opens at the beginning of December. He believes that there are many more opportunities in London, but is understandably cautious about rents and rates. YO! currently has four restaurants in the US, and now has its very own America MD in place in Scott Steenrod. It’s exciting times in the UK, but observing how YO! grows in the US will prove fascinating over the next five or so years.
“Our investor Daniel Sasaki is a New York banker with Japanese descent,” explains Rowland. “He understands Japanese food in America. In New York and Boston, we’ve met our match in customer profile, as they really know their sushi.”
As do millions of YO! customers. They know their sushi and they know their brand. While there may be high-end sushi restaurants and a wide choice of raw fish options all around UK cities, the YO! format and offer remains unique. Yes, it is a dine-in concept, but food is immediate thanks to the carousels in each restaurant. Because guests are able to help themselves from the belt, as well as order food from the kitchen, customer turnover is fast and efficient. It is this standalone format that has delivered 5.5% like-for-like growth over the past 12 months, and that’s during what Rowland calls “a transitional year”. With more restaurants on the way, a greater focus on grab and go areas, and its trusted CEO at the helm, it will certainly be intriguing to watch just how far YO! can go over the coming years.