Speaking earlier this month at BigHospitality’s R200 Conference in London, Bird said that the brand, which operates more than 850 restaurants in Japan alone, intends to branch out from London, where it is currently located.
“We always set this out as a national brand – after all, it’s an international brand,” he said. “From the design and menu, we want to get to Barnsley. Why Barnsley? I lived in Leeds and there wasn’t a whole heap going on there at the time. But if you set you sights there then you have to set your business up in terms of pricing, design, look, feel, and accessibility to go on that journey.
“We are absolutely not London-centric. We are on for Barnsley and beyond.
Marugame Udon made its UK and European debut in the capital last year with the opening of a flagship site on Liverpool Street. It has since opened restaurants in the capital in St Christopher’s Place, Canary Wharf and The 02 with another due to open on Argyll Street in Soho.
The group is also opening a restaurant at Brent Cross shopping centre in the London borough of Barnet. The company will modify its approach based on location, and has a model for flagship, regional and local stores.
“At the moment we are doing what we call flagships. Then there are regional locations, such as Kingston and Brent Cross, and then local stores for suburbs. We have gone heavy on flagships at the beginning to make sure the brand is known and then we will roll out from there. But there will be plenty more regional and local stores than flagships.”
“The big central ones with big footfall work for us but as you go out to the suburban areas you have to be much stronger on delivery and takeaway and ensure that your value proposition really cuts through for the local residents.”
Going big or going home
Bird says the company took a “go big or go home” strategy using the immediate fallout from the pandemic, where landlords were looking to offload sites, as a springboard to launch the brand in the UK.
“There was an opportunity, so we did land some quite strong sites,” he says, acknowledging that some landlords were still reluctant as they hadn’t heard of the Marugame name before.
“[We appealed to] the more enlightened ones who understood it and were ready to go on that journey with you. In 18 months’ time we would either say it was a really bold move or boy it was really stupid.”
Weathering the current climate
Bird described the current trading environment as “brutal”, but said that Marugame’s QSR style positioning and low price point – main dishes start at £3.45 and rarely break the £7 mark - have put it in a good position.
“You have to play the hand in front of you and do the best you can. We need high volume and to maximise sales to leverage all the other challenges that come to us.
“There is a phrase about udon in Japan: ‘young to old, rich to poor, udon for all'. We want to be a really broad church. If we offer extraordinary value, it may be someone’s big treat, while for others it’s seen as a good value lunchtime option compared to a sandwich.”
He added that current staff shortages being experienced by the industry would unlikely impact on the company's growth plans because of how it operates.
“It is a very systemised process; there are seven different stations that you master. You don’t need to be a chef, we will train you, which makes growth possible.”