Simon Cope, global marketing and property director at Wagamama, talks to Mark Wingett about how the group has looked back to the brand’s conception to launch its evolved format and again made the “the kitchen the hero”.

It maybe the 111th opening for Wagamama, but the group’s site in Uxbridge, which opened last year is arguably a milestone for the company, providing it with a next generation format based on its core DNA and a nod to when its story began in 1992.

“If you go back to the start of the brand over 22 years ago – and I read Alan Yau’s book The Way of the Noodle, which is so inspiring - he wrote what he wanted the brand to deliver, the freshness of the food and the type of food, the way you ate the food and the open kitchen in Streatham Street,” says Simon Cope, the brand’s global marketing and property director. “We went right back to that and looked at it. It was so innovative at that time and there is a lot of people copying that now. So part of this was to say ok do I actually want to write on the walls about my food or use big canvases? I want some food on display but I want to bring it to life again and that was the whole idea around the group to make the kitchen the hero, to put it out front and centre.”

The former head of brand marketimg at Mitchells & Butlers wears two hats in his currently role, alongside marketing is property, which gives him a great insight into “what we can do at each site”. He says: “This is a small unit and we have got 103 covers in an incredibly small space. One Saturday they turned the covers 10 times, which I couldn’t get my head around. It doesn’t feel enclosed or hemmed in and there is a lot of buzz. The kitchen is the hub and everything permeates from there. The other part at the heart of our seating was communal dining. Now I still love our bench seating, but all we have really done here is change heights, just to give people a different experience.”

Cope says the evolved format was also about recognising the different occasions that the company wanted to attract people to. He says: “Wagamama is very strong especially during the day, early evening, but I wanted to dial up that evening part. So we have brought in some more premium products, more beers on the drinks menu, highlighted the juices even more and changed the design so the lighting is slightly darker, you can hear more of the music, which brings a further buzz to the place.”

For Cope it is about constant evolution, rather than revolution. “If you need to do a revolution, you are either too late or the job you have to do is so huge it is going to take you so long to get through a big estate you are never going to get to the end. Because I have got a pipeline for the next 12 months, each one will be slightly different. We are designing one for central London, which is more of a flagship (understood to be in Great Marlborough Street) and another one that I am very excited about (believed to be the upcoming launch at Gatwick Airport). The design on that one will be a step forward again.

“You could say this our 2.0 version of the format, but we will keep learning and building from this one. We have refreshed Wimbledon, Stratford and Brighton so far. Stratford we did a big investment and changed all the seating. It looks fabulous and the change has gone down really well, with sales up £8k to £10k a week. I had some expectations with our site in Swindon but they have been surpassed and its keeps delivering each week.”

Cope reveals that new chief executive David Campbell has brought a positive sense of comaradirie to the business. He says: “We had a route and branch look at the business and I asked him to give me some time to look at what needed to be done and come up with some ideas. And to be fair to him he gave me that time. We launched last August the new menu and crockery into six sites. The great thing was that we took all the staff on the journey with us, some had been with the company for 15 years, all great personalities. We said we are going to set out what our vision is for the business, what our manifesto and we are going to believe in it and no decision is going to be made until we are all agreed.”

One of the most significant aspects of Wagamama for Cope is the freshness of the food, “you walk away feeling good”. He says: “We did a huge piece of research and talked to hundreds of consumers and at the heart of it all was the food was amazing but that we needed to bring that experience/food more into the environment, showcase that food more than we were. A bit of old school marketing was needed like the way we positioned stuff on the menu. Take ramen - we are the only business doing it on a national scale and we do it very well. We put it in a much greater position on the menu and our mix on ramen sales has gone up considerably. The other advantage for us is that we are not just a ramen bar, there are a number of different categories that over 20 years we have got really skilled at.”

For Cope there needs to be theatre, but it has to be “honest and not gimmicky”. “This one (Uxbridge) was the hardest one, this is 2,650sq ft, pretty small for 100 covers, but I can now say to the property guys, if something comes up this size, we can do it. There are sites coming up that are bigger than this where we can push the boundaries even further.”

Cope says the group will continue to be selective on new sites. He says: “We worked with the strategy and insight firm Javelin on where we should go and where would be right for us. We have also upped the expectation on the location, we will never do a basement again, we don’t want to hide away. At the moment the pipeline is really exciting, 15 is the minimum, 20 is achievable. There is no pressure on numbers which is the good thing. It will come down to whether there is enough demand from the consumer. I think we have a lot more stores to open in the UK as long as we keep listening to the consumer and evolving to their needs. I am confident we can deliver growth in terms of numbers and sales.”

The company has had some of its international franchisees come to look at the Uxbridge site and highlighting the evolution of the brand is one of the reasons the group was keen to secure that flagship site in London. Cope says: “Our international managing director Brian Johnston was desparate for photos of this place so he could show existing and potential franchisee the new look. We also need to tell them how it is put together and the cost. I believe the look here is more premium and looks more expensive than it may necessarily feel. I remember when I showed it to our shareholders and the aspirations for the site, they loved it but the one question I got asked was is it going to cost a lot more to build. It is being intelligent about how you use the space and being clever with the materials we have and staying authentic.”

Cope says there is no timeline on when the group will retrofit its estate. “The beauty of the business is that its doing very ell anyway, performance is very good,” he says. “I am looking at it selectively, what can we do here, what is the opportunity and the demand? For example, in Brighton there was an opportunity to focus on improving the levels of our evening trade. The evening was solid but there is now there is an uptick in our evening performance. It was recognising the different pace of each day part. We have been working a lot with the staff on recognising that change of pace from lunch to evening. What is the consumer here for and to pick up the subtle differences.”

He says that whilst “we did six months of heavy thinking and planning”, there was a lot of work in giving more autonomy to the brand’s managers, “asking what they needed from us”. He says: “Every manager comes in and presents to the central team what they think their budget should be for the coming year, ‘we need this investment and these are the reasons why’. From us they may want local marketing, new kitchen etc, ok we will support you and help you reach those targets. These managers are running multi-million pound businesses we have to give them that trust. They are running those businesses and they know what they need. We are not going to do a refurb for the sake of it.”

In terms of the Wagamama way – Cope is determined that positive eating, positive living remains at the heart of the company, which is not a bad benchmark to set.