Business profile: Robin Rowland of YO! Sushi

By Paul Wootton

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Restaurant

Business profile: Robin Rowland of YO! Sushi
An extraordinarily loyal customer base coupled with increased investment in staff will help YO! Sushi ride out the current economic storm, says its chief executive Robin Rowland.

Sitting in his newest restaurant, in the mega-mall of Westfield in London, a few weeks before Christmas, Robin Rowland looks relaxed and confident. As relaxed and confident as the chief executive of a restaurant company can be, given the current financial climate.

While YO! Sushi hasn’t been immune from the challenging trading conditions, Rowland believes his business is better equipped than most to ride out the economic storm. For a start, he doesn’t have a single loss-making unit among his estate, and many of them are performing very healthily indeed, including the one at Westfield.

Rowland reckons it’s probably the highest grossing per square foot restaurant in the mall. While the company aims for a 35 per cent return on its investment with each site, the Westfield unit’s turnover is so high, it may well return 100 per cent in its first year.

Westfield is one of nine successful sites added in 2008, which represents a considerable acceleration in growth (YO! had never opened more than six sites in a year before). Rowland expects expansion to continue apace over the next few years, albeit most of it overseas. Currently the company operates 40 sites in the UK and 12 abroad (six in the Middle East, two in Russia, two in Ireland and two in Malaysia).

A major reason for YO!’s progress is the concept. When entrepreneur Simon Woodroffe opened the first site in Poland Street, London, in 1997, it was perfectly positioned to capitalise on the emerging zeitgeist of all things Asian. As Rowland says, the world’s compass was beginning to move. “I ran American themed restaurants in the late 80s and the whole world was pointing west,” he recalls. “The compass in the last five years has gone completely the other way. You can see that in the other offers in London, so YO! Sushi is still riding on the back of that wave.”

After Poland Street, openings in Harvey Nichols and Selfridges department stores proved that the restaurants could become more “lightweight”, with obvious cost savings. “We realised we could open restaurants without four walls, like the one you’re sitting in today,” says Rowland. “We can drop a rig down into a forecourt.” Today the majority of YO!’s openings fall into this category; concessions or spaces within railway stations; or in straightforward shopping malls, where the units tend to be more expensive “full fit-out boxes”, requiring shop fronts, heating and ventilation. The most “heavyweight” model, a standalone restaurant in a high street location, is built less often. In addition, each restaurant is tailored to its particular environment.

“We want people to fall in love with a local restaurant,” explains Rowland. “And that’s why we never build the same restaurant twice.” That might not be the cheapest approach to rolling out a restaurant brand but, according to Rowland, it ensures his team are fully engaged in creating unique environments. As a result, he says, the restaurants they’ve built in 2008 are “sensational”.

Lighting, seating, video screens and uniforms can all be different; it’s all about making a mainstream branded restaurant that bit more personal. The food continues to evolve too, with the whole menu of about 90 dishes reviewed at least once a year, and more hot dishes added over the years, particularly outside of London. Despite its name, hot food now accounts for about 40 per cent of what YO! Sushi sells. What hasn’t changed is the quality of the ingredients. Its fish has always been top-notch, and everything is still prepared on the premises.

This tailoring of the offering has reaped rich rewards in terms of a loyal customer base. Some 20 per cent of YO!’s customers eat there once a week – a staggering statistic that Rowland describes as “virtually a Pret a Manger or coffee shop metric”. The majority of its customers are female, and webliterate too. YO! has built an enviable database of 250,000 people, each of whom has signed up to its YO! Love Club and receives a monthly e-letter with details of news and offers. The communication is two-way, with customers providing a wealth of invaluable feedback. Rowland is keen to further tap into the potential of the internet and intends to place greater emphasis on “interactive communication” later in the year.

As the economy evolves, so Rowland’s role at the helm of the company is changing. He describes his job as juggling the five ‘P’s – People, Product, Property, Promotion and Profit. In 2007, much of his energy was spent looking at property and profit, putting together a deal to raise finance for the company. “My job now, especially as we move into a downturn, is to focus on People, Promotion and Product (both service and food), in this spirit of constant evolution,” explains Rowland.

Recent trips to Tokyo will inspire a number of innovations to both menu and sites, including trialling Robata grills and building on the hot food offering. And on the people front (the company now has 1,100 employees), a YO! academy will open in 2009, next to the company’s headquarters in Farringdon. “All our London team members will start their life at the academy. All our management from general manager to sous chefs will undergo their initial training there. It’s a significant investment,” says Rowland. “But we truly believe this is a people business that needs to deliver on customers’ ever-rising expectations.”

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