Confessions of a serial visionary

Robot waiters and conveyer belts will soon bring the ultimate “elegant fast food” to this region. CHARGED meets Simon Woodroffe, the man behind YO! Sushi.

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By  Justin Etheridge Published  October 5, 2002

I|~||~||~| So YO! Sushi is set to take the Middle East by storm? When? And what makes you think a hi-tech London restaurant chain will work in this region?

We completed a deal last year to bring YO! Sushi to Kuwait and we are close to a Dubai deal now. It's very real. I'll be ready to announce details by the time I arrive myself in a month to speak at the Dubai Strategy Forum. Is the Middle East ready for our ideas? Yes, I think so.

But look at the USA. There is no record of any UK restaurant ever going over there and being successful. And yet we are committed to YO! in America in the guise of an American company, run by Americans. That's the same with any franchise we work with, including the Middle East.

The modern brand must avoid stuffing its origins down everyone's throat worldwide. It's a case of debranded-branding. The various YO! elements will have an identity of their own as they grow up, and reflect the culture that they live in as well.

But how will you fare here when many other 'lifestyle' projects have failed here precisely because the community is such an eclectic demographic?

Lifestyle is a naf word, isn't it? Gone are the days when a marketeer can simply say, 'this is how we're positioning ourselves.' Twenty-first century brands will have real substance. What you stand for is more important than what you're selling.

The act of going to YO! Sushi is a unique experience. Very clean, very efficient and even a little bit cheeky. There is no hidden kitchen and most consumers enjoy the sense of theatre. We're not trying to be terribly clever or polished. It is fast and it is friendly and it works for a lot of different audiences too: a wealthy lady who lunches, sitting next to a businessman, next to an artist next to a student.

They can control their spend by their selection ― you can tell the cost of the meal by the pile of red plates as opposed to the pile of blue. We call the experience "elegant fast food".

YO! Sushi is clearly just the beginning of the broader YO! brand. Might you lose something en route to global domination?

Can you keep the spirit alive as you expand? Two answers: first, I don't know, because I've never been there. Second, if we make it, what a great problem to have! Remember, I started YO! five years ago with my life savings of £150k.

But my focus is on much longer-term financial results, not short-term profit. I'm out to create a sustainable brand that stands for something, means something. Customers like that, recognise it, and support it. Which generates profit of course.

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Talking about brand expansion, have you ever rejected a concept for being too outrageous?

Every brand is on the lookout for the next big market. I have to admit the husband of my housekeeper in the country is a gravedigger… and he confirms that the funeral industry is a bit in the dark ages.

Let's be honest, you never negotiate on the subject. You don't call up a funeral director and shop around. Clearly someone you love has died. Meanwhile, coffins cost £35 from the factory, but you're lucky to get one from the undertaker for less than four or five hundred pounds. That is an enormous margin.

But seriously, would we want one day to bring funerals into the modern age? Are we ready for YO! Below! Only if it could be a true celebration of an individual's life. I hear Virgin has been looking at the funeral business too ― which would add up.

Ever been accused of being all style and no substance?

No, you're the first one! In fact I don't think we're particularly gimmicky. Look at the restaurant. Nothing is there for decoration ― the conveyer belt is actually incredibly practical. You can see exactly what is on offer, without having to imagine what it looks like.

The truth is that I was once a designer of rock shows, back in the early 70s. There wasn't much room for artistic, impractical types. Whatever you designed had to travel on the road. Lifts and platforms cannot break down six months into a world tour. I was taught through experience that form follows function. We have self-service beer at our tables because it's practical.

What if the pub were invented today? Would someone announce: “Hey, I've got this great concept. I call it the Pub. We'll put buxom wenches serving ale behind a big plank of wood. To get served you must approach the plank and wave a ten groat note in the air amongst a great melee of people.” Hardly an efficient way of exchanging money, which is the point of owning a bar after all.

Better to help yourself and allow an automatic counter to keep track of your drinks. Then you pay your bill at the end. You can call this alternative system a gimmick, but to me it's a very practical way of doing business. And it's fun.
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