Speaking on the back of the group’s Q1 trading update yesterday, Wagamama chief executive Jane Holbrook talks to MCA about not mentioning the weather, why she is asking her staff not to work too hard, how the brand learnt to embrace delivery and plans to become a “global, iconic brand”.
Holbrook said the group had seen “a little bit of a slowdown” as a result of the hot weather and World Cup but that the business had remained positive in terms of like-for-like sales every month.
She added: “One of our mantras is we don’t talk about the weather – we even call it “the thing we can’t talk about” - because weather happens every year and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it other than deal with it. If you go in with an attitude of “we can do this” and everyone is galvanised then you can get through anything. We work hard on giving our operators the confidence that they can do anything.”
The brand says it has now outperformed its peers for 228 weeks consecutively, with a 10.1% gap in the most recent quarter.
Holbrook stressed that there were a number of drivers of this performance, adding: “You’ll laugh but our big theme is love, and we have got this initiative called “love yourself, love your people, love your guest”. We have made a conscious effort to stop talking about sales as the most important thing in the business and concentrating more on people taking good care of themselves.
“We are doing lots of work around physical good health and staying fit and also mental health. We have given the team access to a meditation app and we had its creator, who is a Buddhist monk, at our conference. We also had Jason Fox, the ex SAS guy and what was interesting is that they were both saying the same thing – when things are getting tough you have to stop, touch other people and calm your thinking down. Even a few seconds of calming down can help you deal with the situation. We are doing lots around not working your teams too hard and helping them have some fun.”
In terms of food innovation Holbrook said it came back to the Kaisan philosophy of “improving every day in little ways”.
She said: “We are very restless but in a positive sense. You won’t us suddenly do something radical – we’re not going to start selling burgers – but we will innovate on a small-scale every single day.
“One of the biggest successes we have had recently in terms of innovation is the reaction to our vegan offering. We have done it well and it’s a good fit with what we do anyway. It’s plays well with our target audience.”
On delivery, Holbrook said: “The breakthrough moment was when we stopped fighting with Deliveroo and started to become partners.
“We focussed on the issues we had with delivery - mainly eat-in customers being disturbed by delivery drivers coming through. So, we have redesigned our restaurants, to build in delivery rooms. If we can, we have put a back entrance in. If we can’t then we have built good relationships with drivers and get them to be more respectful – to stay outside or simply to make sure they’re as respectful as they can be of the eating-in experience.
“It’s been very important to stick with one partner so we can build that relationship. It keeps it simple.”
The brand opened its first Deliveroo Editions site in Battersea last month and Holbrook described it as being “in decent shape”.
She added: “We are testing and learning but we are only in the third week. We’ve made some changes operationally because we had to get into that mindset of designing it solely for delivery and that takes some adjustment.
“We will keep on improving and testing and then we will see where we are. We’re not going to rush this. The absolute most important thing is that we mustn’t mess up our really strong brand for the sake of short-term sales.
On international expansion, Holbrook said: “Our vision is to become a global, iconic brand but we’re a minnow at the moment.
“We are very encouraged by some of the stuff we’re seeing abroad but it’s just taking us a bit longer than we initially thought.”
She said there had been little fundamental change to the model to take it into new territories, adding; “They follow six months behind on menu innovation but after that it’s broadly the same offer. There is a slightly different taste profile in each area, so for example the stocks are slightly more seasoned in the US and obviously we’re halal in some areas but the brand is the same.
On the key expansion target of the US, Holbrook said: “We’ve learnt a huge amount from our three restaurants in Boston. Seaport was a bit like Canary Wharf before the tube arrived but now its growing really well. The Prudential Center site has just had a big refurb and has opened with 15-18% lfls up in the first few weeks. The other site was a bit bumpy to start with but now it’s doing very well.
“We’ve got two more coming in Manhattan - one in November and another in March/April next year in central Manhattan.
“We see a lot of opportunity along the east coast, with places like Philadelphia. We had to walk away from a site in Washington because it felt like we were trying to take on too much at once. We’ve got a good strong team out there now so we feel confidant.
On further expansion in the UK, she said: “There is plenty more for us to go for but we have to make sure the locations we choose are right for the brand. We know our sweet spots and we know it doesn’t work everywhere. We would never got to trading estates for example.
“We’re looking forward to opening in Terminal 3 at Heathrow next year, which will be a really exciting site for us.”