YO! Sushi, the Robin Rowland-led, Quilvest-backed group, has reportedly appointed advisers to explore its options, including a possible sale.

According to the Sunday Telegraph, Quilvest has appointed Canaccord to explore interest in the business, although a formal sale process is unlikely to formally kick-off until later this year.

 It suggests that the group, which currently operates 66 sites in the UK and 12 overseas, is valued at c£120m, more than double the £51m Quilvest paid as part of management buyout in 2008.

The company, which plans to open 15 sites in total this year, is believed to have generated EBITDA of £12m in its last financial year.

The group recently returned to the central London acquisition trail, securing units in Kensington and Baker Street. It also has further opening lined up in Heathrow’s new Terminal 2 and Richmond for this summer.

The company is also close to securing its first site in Northern Ireland. It is talks to open a site in the Victoria Square scheme in Belfast.

The shopping centre is already home to other family restaurants, such as Cosmo, Chiquito, Pizza Express and Nando’s.

YO! Sushi UK serves 120,000 guests per week or six million per annum, with average spend per head at £15.

Is YO! ready to go? Comment by M&C Report editor Mark Wingett

2014 is gearing up to be an important one for YO! Sushi, but the Robin Rowland-led group is putting itself in a perfect position to take advantage of any opportunities both home and abroad.

The company is moving purposely into a nice position to reviews its options. While Rowland and Quilvest would have checked out the processes involving Cote and Byron last summer, valuations here are not comparable as whilst both are great businesses they are young, relatively unproven outside London , not international, ‘full casual’ and not as flexible/differentiated as YO! at this time. All this could see a price tag for the group edging up in excess of the £120m currently being put forward.

Any suitors will find the company in good health, complete with strong sales growth over the past 18 months aided in part by Rowland taking an even more hands-on approach during the period after the departure of operations director Gary Thomas. Innovation in offer, technology and design have always been strong calling cards for the group, witness the introduction of its bigger bowl ramen offer and rice burger promotion , its work on reducing payment times by half a minute per customer through mobile device systems and its new look sites in Manchester Trafford centre and Kingston for proof of all three.

It has also led in terms of marketing and in particular social media, with one recent poll placing it top in the sector for “brands that most behave like people”. Interestingly it is also the only restaurant brand that has been invited to present at this year’s Voxburner’s Youth Marketing Strategy forum aimed at 16-24 year olds, a key demographic for the sector and one YO! scores highly with. As Rowland recently told Marketing Week: “Social media has transformed most brands ability to talk to customers. Those that fear it probably don’t understand it, and are telling customers what they want, rather than listening to them.” And this is not lip service, feedback from customers through social media, has seen the company change “the product we sell, the property in terms of the way we design our restaurants, the way we promote and also how we employ our people”.

While expansion has progressed at around the eight to 10-site-a-year mark for the last few years, it is the location and, in one respect, the format of the openings that has garnered interest and fuelled sale talk. The group recently went back on the central London expansion trail, securing sites in Kensington and Baker Street. Added to the group’s Heathrow Terminal 2 site, another secured in Richmond and a possible debut site in Northern Ireland, this will form an impressive clutch of openings for late spring/early summer.

Rowland has already spoken of his belief that the group could double in size and reach 150 sites in the UK. It is thought that to achieve this it may return to explore a format it has mooted in the past, a smaller, takeaway-led kiosk concept.

Internationally, its partnership with SSP, which has proven so successful in Oslo, should also bear further fruit with more international airport site launches, while further openings in the Gulf are being lined up. However, like Wagamama before it, it will be the group’s success in the US, which will be of most interest to suitors in terms of an international play. After opening its first US franchise site in Washington DC in July 2012, the group has been careful in regards to further rollout, but it is thought that it is getting into position to dial up its expansion plans Stateside over the next 12 months. It hopes to have 75 sites operating in the UK by the year end and 18 overseas.

But what does the future hold for Rowland, who led the first MBO of the business in 2003 and has since grown it from four restaurants to over 90 restaurants worldwide by year end. One that is now used by more than 10% of UK eating out population at least once a year with industry leading levels of frequency.

Rowland is largely responsible for transforming the company from an exciting concept into an international thriving business. Today, you get the sense he gets just as much enjoyment ‘working on businesses’ from his interaction with the teams at Marston’s, Caffe Nero and Tortilla through his non-exec roles on their respective boards.

However, he has now been chief executive at YO! for 14 years, and while this demonstrates rare longevity at the top of a casual dining company, it also may stop him from leaving completely something he has such a strong hand in creating. He has also run YO! without a chairman for the past six years.

Two years ago at the time of the brand’s 15th birthday, I said that YO! had all the credentials in place to make the move from Premier League operator to Champions League. Excuse the football parlance, but the knocking on the top-four door is coming to an end and wherever its new home turns out to be, they should thank Quilvest and Rowland, in particular, for providing it with the best squad (marketing, technology, innovation, design, offer, location) and talent (such as chief operating officer Vanessa Hall), to make a good fist of staying there and thriving.