Vanessa Hall takes the helm at Yo! Sushi at arguably the most exciting point of the brand’s life cycle, as it looks to grow up from being the sector’s “mischievous little brother”, as Hall playfully calls it, without losing what made it successful in the first place.
The conveyor belt sushi restaurant chain might have managed to retain its mischievous character thanks to clever branding and a modern design, but it can no longer be classed as little. Now 17 years old and with 70 UK sites, not to mention a bold international expansion plan on the cards, Yo! Sushi has become one of the most respected restaurant brands in the country.
Moreover, backer Quilvest is set to explore options later this year, with a £120m price tag being mooted for the business. There’s nothing little about this company any more.
The appointment of Hall is a clear indicator of Yo! Sushi’s ambition. Having spent more than 20 years at Mitchells & Butlers (M&B), where she was responsible for more than 140 sites across the managed operator’s Premium Country Dining Group, Browns, and Village Pub & Kitchen estates, Hall’s multi-site experience is likely to prove invaluable as the company pushes on to the next stage of growth.
Plans are in place to open 10 sites each year and recent openings have included High St Kensington and Baker Street in London, Cheshire Oaks, and at the newly reopened Heathrow Terminal 2, a site that long-time Yo! Sushi chief executive Robin Rowland describes as the group’s most innovative to date.
The company also intends to take a proper stab at the US market this year and has announced plans to open 50 restaurants in the US during the next six years after signing a new franchise agreement for the country with One.23 Entertainment Group. The first site under the new deal will open at Westfield Garden State Plaza, in Paramus, New Jersey.
To facilitate this growth, Hall has implemented some changes to help the company expand in what she says is a “grown-up way”. This includes the introduction of regular ‘future meetings’ – a marketing meeting and a property one – both of which are held on the same day. The main focus of both meetings is how the company can be better prepared for the future developments.
“When the next three or five sites come at us, we’ll be able to cope with that and get ahead of the game,” she says.
“As a small team, I don’t want us to fly by the seat of our pants. The things we’ve put in place focus on making the right decisions in a timely fashion, without catching each other out.”
Hall’s biggest challenge, outside of trying to crack America, is a familiar one: how to continue to grow the brand into a truly nationwide player while retaining its essence.
“Not many brands can adapt and flex to work in so many different locations or appeal to so many people. We should harness that,” she says. “We’re now at a point of being grown-up without tarnishing that positive culture. It is something we need to focus on: it’s easy to scale and compromise what the brand is actually about.”
One of the key tools she has identified to help achieve sustainable growth is through attracting, teaching and retaining talent. “There is a great opportunity to grow nationally and internationally. The journey goes through stages, but at each one a winning team is vital,” she says, “I start with engaging the existing team and new talent, to get the right team to take this business forward.
“We still have a good attraction strategy and because we’re opening quite a lot of sites we have fresh blood coming into the business. Cult is a strong word and can have negative connotations, but once you’re in Yo! You can become addicted to the culture. The challenge is to keep that ethos as we continue to grow. There is no back-of-house storage here, which gives us a competitive edge from a consumer point of view but also makes us attractive to respective employees.”
Rather than just paying lip-service to this approach, Hall has put in the hard yards to get under the skin of the company she had admired from afar during her time at M&B and interact with the staff on a more even footing.
In May 2013, she undertook chef training at Yo! Sushi’s Milton Keynes site, something she kept a secret because she says she didn’t want people “coming in to check out what I was up to”.
She also worked on the company’s £12,000-a-week takeaway line at Paddington rail station and visited every restaurant in the group, from Aberdeen and Plymouth, to immerse herself early on in all the company had to offer.
“I started in Aberdeen and worked my way around the regional sites, conscious of the fact that if I’d started in London it would have taken some time to get out to the other restaurants. It was a fantastic experience.” One year on, she remains impressed with what she found and is now overseeing.
One of Yo! Sushi’s key strengths is its strong branding, and Hall is committed to focusing on this aspect as the company expands further. A self-confessed Yo! customer during her time at M&B, Hall was already familiar with the brand, but admits to requiring a refresher course when she started.
“As I had moved out of London about 10 years before, I hadn’t been to a Yo! In some time,” she says. “I wasn’t a totally lapsed user but I hadn’t been frequenting its restaurants as much as I used to. Once I started to dip my toe back in, one thing I found I liked about Yo! was the actual branding, which promotes very high awareness and positive recognition. Consumers like what we stand for and it differentiates us from the other restaurant brands.
“From the external research we have carried out we are more closely associated with retail brands. Lifestyle brand is a very corny expression, but Yo! is a little bit like that due to what it stands for. There is no natural competitor in the sector, while the demographic spread this brand appeals to is amazing.”
Despite the brand moving into the twilight of its teen years it has managed to remain young at heart, something that Hall is also at pains to ensure doesn’t slip under her stewardship.
“The brand started 17 years ago but is more relevant today than ever. It has got a history, but people outside of the industry would not realise it has reached this age thanks to its healthy on-trend products, food [prepared] in front of the customers’ eyes and the theatre.”
Product development has played an important role in keeping the brand fresh, as has employing a more quirky approach at times. Last year, for example, the chain launched what it claimed was the world’s first flying tray that had four propellers on each corner to give it the stability required in order not to spill its contents. As well as garnering a lot of press interest, the stunt reinforced the company’s playful side.
Menu wise, the company has also continued to ring the changes, such as the introduction last year of the limited edition Yo! ramen burger made with a rice rather than a bread bun. This summer, it has launched Oishii buns, folded steamed buns in miso chicken, teriyaki mushroom, yuzu mackerel and hoisin duck flavours.
Attract and retain
Developments such as these are all part of the Yo! Sushi charm offensive, not just in trying to retain existing customers but to attract a new set of consumers, an aspect that Hall say she will be giving particular attention to in the coming years. “We attract a huge amount of the eating-out population, but how do we convince more people to come through the door and to keep returning?” she says. “We have achieved some good like-for-like growth over a period of time, but the key issue is about keeping that going.”
One way it is doing this is by refocusing some of its attention on the London market – where the brand began – with the majority of its latest openings based in the capital. “It wasn’t planned to be so condensed in the openings we are doing and the refurbishments we are carrying out, but there is a vacuum in which Yo! is perfectly placed to move in terms of being relevant to what is happening in London.”
On top of this, the company is continuing to build its takeaway business and has extended the eating occasions for the brand with the launch of a breakfast option at its new Baker Street site. “It wouldn’t be suitable to go everywhere,” Hall admits, “but it may work for those sites close to or in transport hubs.”
While her M&B background will again be useful in looking to broaden Yo! Sushi’s appeal, Hall says she is also relishing being able to implement changes at a much quicker pace than at her previous employer. It is this fleet-of-foot mentality that is perhaps Yo!’s biggest asset as it looks to further cement its position as the UK’s leading sushi chain.
“The main difference is the speed of being able to get things done,” says Hall.
“Obviously with the structure of a PLC there are more hoops to jump through. We have a regular catch-up. We don’t hang about after a decision is made.”