"Watch this space": Kanada-Ya duo on international brand expansion, the ramen revolution and dealing with squatters

By Georgia Bronte contact

- Last updated on GMT

"Watch this space": The duo behind Kanada-Ya on international brand expansion, the ramen revolution and dealing with squatters

Related tags: Japanese cuisine

Japanese group Kanada-Ya is opening its third UK ramen restaurant site this Spring (it also runs ‘Japanese townhouse’ restaurant Machiya). Owners Aaron Burgess-Smith and Tony Lam discuss London and international expansion, moving beyond the capital and dealing with squatters.

Why did you choose to open your new site in Islington?
Aaron Burgess-Smith: The West End and Soho, where our other restaurants are, already benefit from a variety high-quality casual dining operators, but locations outside of central London are often overlooked. Angel has a great mix of young professionals, students and creatives who we think will embrace our brand.

What will be new and what will stay the same at the new site?
ABS: The new branch will be larger than the previous, with space for around 60 diners with more space and comfort. In addition to the current menu there will be sides like handmade gyoza - we’re using a recipe from our founder, Mr Kanada’s, mother in law.

How big might the brand become? Is it very scalable?
ABS: Once Angel is operational there will be eight branches worldwide, which leaves considerable room for expansion throughout Europe, Asia and possibly the US. We plan to open three to four further sites in 2018, two of which will be based in the UK. We are confident in our scalability, but our focus is on maintaining the standards of quality that got us this far.

How does London compare to the other countries in which you operate in terms of demand?
Tony Lam: Hong Kong was the first branch outside of Japan to launch, shortly before the Tottenham Court Road location in London. With three sites in each city it appears to be equally as popular. There’s definitely a market for our ramen in the UK outside of London, but there would be pricing and menu differences that might need looking at. 

What sets your brand apart from the other ramen shops in London?
TL: We have always focused on offering a small variety of dishes, perfected in line with Japanese tradition. Other ramen shops may offer sushi, tempura or izakaya-style dishes, but we are very much aware that it is ramen - tonkotsu in particular- that our customers rate and that is what we have built our business on. 

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Is the increased competition a good thing or a bad thing?
ABS:  Anything that raises the profile of ramen and Japanese cuisine in general is a good thing – and customers can vote with their wallets as to which operators will benefit.

What are your plans for Machiya?
TL: Machiya was somewhat of an unknown to us initially, having only worked with ramen. Over a short period of time it has evolved into something really exciting, and customers have really taken to the concept. Watch this space.

How do you see Japanese food evolving in London – and elsewhere in the UK?
TL: We expect to see the move towards specialised restaurants like ourselves, perhaps focusing on yakiniku, udon or tempura. As for the rest of the UK we would hope that the offering we currently have in London will feed through to other cities.

Your new site has been taken over by squatters. How did that happen and how are you handling it?
ABS: We found out just before Christmas they had occupied the building, but court closures over the holiday period meant that it has carried over to the New Year. They’re still in there, but we’re hoping to reclaim possession any day now.

Has it been a big setback?
TL: ​It has put us back a bit…we are currently a week or so behind. We think we can make it up during the fit out though. It’s been really frustrating, but it is just one of many unexpected hurdles of the restaurant business.  

Related topics: People

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