Keith Bird and his colleague, head of marketing Hillary Ansell, have been grappling over the categorisation of Marguame Udon.
One of Japan’s biggest restaurant brands, and the biggest udon specialist in the world, Marugame is proving curiously difficult to define.
With an aggressive pricing strategy and high volume, turnover and speed of service, the brand that has newly arrived in the UK has plenty of similarities with the QSR service style of Greggs and McDonald’s.Yet with a theatrical open kitchen, where the signature thick sanuki udon noodles are cut fresh in front of customers, it feels like a more premium restaurant experience – albeit one with a canteen-style counter model, which has been affectionately described by commentators as like an Ikea café experience.
Whichever way Marguame Udon is defined, Keith Bird, CEO of the business in Europe, is happy the brand is being talked about.
“Walking into restaurant, you’ve got the theatre of the kitchen, it’s all authentic and going on right before your eyes,” he explains. “But the economic model does work on an aggressive price point, with amazing food, and speed and table turn.
“You could say that means we have a fast food model. It means we’re closer to QSR than casual dining. We’re probably in our own little space. Quick service causal perhaps. It’s something in between.
“The quality is certainly much higher, but the value proposition is really strong as well.”
A need for high footfall locations
We meet at the brand’s second UK location, at the Icon Outlet, in the O2. Although currently closed to customers, the restaurant is a hive of activity as staff undergo training. This buzzy atmosphere and staff energy is key - not just to serve customers quickly and efficiently, but to contribute to the customer experience.
Taking the former Garfunkel’s site, the location is a different proposition to the typical Marugame Udon site. For Bird this is an opportunity to stress test the model in terms of speed of service, and table turning, alongside the equally busy debut flagship on Liverpool Street.
Spread over two floors, the 3,790sq ft O2 restaurant is bigger than a typical Marugame Udon although Bird says subsequent UK restaurants may well be smaller with a greater emphasis on delivery and click & collect, and perhaps a suburban franchise model.
“For flagships, you want to make sure you’re in some good high visibility locations,” he says. “It’s important that we go to high footfall locations. But we’re also creating our own footfall. The model is about amazing value. It’s not about price, but about incredible value.”
A hospitality veteran, and the former chief operating officer of Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Bird was brought in to run the European master franchise business, which is backed by private equity group Capdesia, which is also an investor in Wasabi. He acknowledges there is still some work to do to ensure customers understand the proposition and offering of a cuisine that does not yet have mainstream recognition.
During focus groups, it was discovered customers were aware of udon but had not necessarily tried it. Neither was it a completely alien concept to them, with many people having had noodle soup in one form or another thanks to the popularity of chains such as Wagamama and Pho.
For Bird, Marguame Udon’s selling point is the theatre of the kitchen and the sight of the noodles being made and dressed in an assembly line, which he believes takes away any sense of mystery customers might have about udon.
Something for everyone
The menu is designed to be quick and easy to execute, with 10-12 dishes covering the key proteins and a good vegan mix. The cheapest bowl of noodles, kamaage – udon straight from the kama (pot) served in kama water with a dashi for dipping – is priced at £3.45 with the most expensive – a beef yaki udon – £8.95. Diners can customise their dishes with items such as a soft boiled or poached egg and kimchi as well as with various toppings by way of a condiment station.
While udon might not be yet known to all, the idea is to make the concept accessible to all, says Bird. “Alongside the traditional dishes, we have other items we make sure it’s available to everyone. It’s designed to get us to all round the UK. This is not a London brand. It’s for the whole of the UK and we hope the whole of Europe.”
More recognisable items on the menu include rice bowls with either salmon or chicken terayki and chicken katsu as well as vegetable and chicken gyoza and chicken karaage, with which British consumers will be well familiar. Still, Bird is impressed by the level of popularity of some of the more traditional dishes, such as the kake udon, a bowl of noodles served in a light dashi broth and simply topped with spring onions, and a steal at £4.45.
“People really want to try the traditional dishes. The kake is one of the chef’s recommendations, which helps guide customers. People engage with it and have the trust to come back to that product. And it has a pretty good price point for a hot lunch.”
“It’s important to have the breadth of offer which will support that.”
Building brand awareness
In building awareness of the brand, attention has been turned to social media and influencers, whose audience align with those that Marugame is targeting.
Japanese expats helped pioneer the popularity of the brand in the UK when it first launched in Liverpool Street earlier this year, spurred on by visits by Japanese film crews - though attention his now turned beyond these ambassadors. “Ultimately we want to get to everyone."
Part of this broad outreach is an ambition to make Marugame if not an everyday use case, then a high frequency occasion, supported by its competitive price point. “In Japan they say, ‘find joy in the everyday’, and udon is a daily ritual. Young and old, rich and poor, udon is a great leveller,” says Bird.
“We want it to be every day and have priced it that way. We want it to be closer to Greggs and McDonald’s than casual dining, as we believe the value drives the frequency as well as the speed and convenience.”
Taking the Japanese philosophy of kaizen and the quest for continual improvement, Bird says the brand has been already identifying learnings and made tweaks in the short time it has been open. “The business is constantly adjusting and learning. It’s the Japanese way, you see it in the obsession to detail.”
While the focus will always be one restaurant at a time, Bird sees an opportunity to grow at pace.
“This is a super exciting brand and proposition for customers, and we’re seeing that in our customers’ response. We’re looking at strong growth, quite quickly. We have big ambitions.”
However, to get where it wants to be, Marugame now has an increased level of competition in the market to get the best sites. “It’s always competitive, and it’s becoming more challenging. There are more people in the market.
“What’s great is when you have landlords that are looking not just at the headline rent, but at the balance of the offering.”
The company doesn’t intend to hang around with is expansion plans, and says it will have opened four UK restaurants before Christmas. Expansion next year is anticipated to be at an quicker pace.
“We’d like to go stronger next year, maybe 10 [restaurants], says Bird. “That would be a good number for us to go for. And start to move towards franchising as well.
“We’re not a London-centric brand. We want to make it available to all.”