Wagamama CEO Emma Woods was named Retailers’ Retailer of the Year 2021 at a virtual ceremony last night. Woods emerged as the popular choice among her industry peers after seeing off strong competition from Loungers CEO Nick Collins, Greggs CEO Roger Whiteside and Oakman executive chairman Peter Borg-Neal. 

The Wagamama leader is credited with pushing forward the brand’s positive momentum, adapting under pressure to the havoc wrought by coronavirus.

Emma Woods had big shoes to fill taking the reins at Wagamama, with her predecessors David Campbell and Jane Holbrook both former Retailers’ Retailer of the Year award winners.

The CEO, who has a marketing background at Unilever, Pizza Express and Merlin, has confidently upheld the Pan-Asian brand’s positive momentum under its stewardship at The Restaurant Group, adapting under pressure to the havoc wrought by coronavirus.

Having closed the estate in a cost-effective way, Woods relaunched Wagamama with innovative Japanese-style sliding screens, which were both brand-appropriate and safety conscious.

One of the few brands to open new sites during the past 12 months, the company’s latest financial results under Woods show her careful cost management and shrewd rent deals saw adjusted EBITDA increase.

Woods said that winning the awards such as these was recognition for the whole Wagamama team and what it has achieved this year. “We love being part of this sector and peer acknowledgement is very important,” she said.

“2020 was just the most incredibly challenging year and we learned lots of things. Probably the thing that strikes me as the most important lesson for us has been the importance of the sense of team,” she told MCA.

She said that whether it’s been relationships with its partners, suppliers, or landlords, in all cases Wagamama has been asking ‘how can we get through this together?’. “It’s been that team-ship that has really carried us through,” she said.

Woods explained that the business had to pivot very quickly between the periods of restrictions and reopening, but throughout the year it tried to remain true to its philosophy of innovation.

“It has been a very bruising time for us as a sector, but I actually think the long-term prospects for the industry are really quite good,” said Woods.

Businesses have had to make tough decisions about their sites, but they have had time in lockdown to really think about their proposition and how they want to innovate in the future, she said. “I think the businesses you’ll see emerge on the other side will be stronger businesses post-Covid than when we went into the crisis last March.”

Woods said that in addition to the acceleration of trends such as delivery and the expectation from customers for businesses to be sustainable, there were several other trends coming out of the pandemic which may change the way customers behave in the future.

One is where consumers live and work. “If we see people working from home lot, as we anticipate, that will affect the way they use businesses like ours,” she said. While the fact the nation has had to cook more for themselves and been offered “an increasingly exciting range of food at home” by the supermarkets is likely to mean they are going to be more demanding about the quality of the food and the experience of food out of home, “and we are going to have to rise to that as a sector”, added Woods.