The first Wagamama was housed in the basement of a period building near Tottenham Court Road. It was easy to miss – the only indication of its presence was a black sign above the door. It had a minimal interior, with plain white walls and long wooden benches, and served a mix of Asian and Japanese dishes from katsu curries to ramen.
Dining at canteen-style communal tables might be commonplace now – particularly in larger cities like London – but back then, this was a novel approach. So too was the use of handheld PDAs to take orders and the concept of delivering dishes when they were ready, instead of serving groups all at once.
“I guess [Yau’s vision] was quite purist,” says Stuart Wright, head of insight at Wagamama. “It was about providing really good and super accessible Asian food in this sort of no-frills environment. The concept was very much inspired from Japanese ramen bars … [where] the décor and the environment and everything else is not the focus – the focus is on getting people in, getting great food in front of them quickly, and then letting them carry on with their day,” he explains.
Twenty-five years later, Wagamama has more than 120 restaurants in the UK plus others in the US, Europe and the Middle East. Like Pizza Express and Pret a Manger, it has become a staple of the British high street.
The brand has undergone several changes of ownership but it remains true to Yau’s original vision and continues to prove popular with diners. Like for like sales were up 14 percent last year and it is continuing to expand: it recently launched in New York as well as Boston and New Zealand.
The key things that set Wagamama apart in its early years have remained – diners still sit at communal benches and food still arrives when its ready – but in recent years, the brand has placed a much greater focus on design.
In 2014, it introduced a new interiors concept with the launch of a restaurant in Uxbridge. Designed in partnership with agency Blacksheep, it featured a darker, cosier colour palette with dark grey flooring and black shelving and benches. The kitchen is the centrepiece of the restaurant and is positioned in front of the window, meaning it can be seen from outside by passers-by. This cosier, darker look has been rolled out in other new restaurants though each Wagamama is unique. A new branch in Edinburgh’s St Andrew’s Square which opened this year has an industrial feel, with wooden panelling, black metal and exposed ventilation, while another in Dean Street features exposed brick walls and copper lighting. Wagamama has also been refurbishing older restaurants such as its Bedford Street branch near Covent Garden.
The new design concept was born out of research into people’s perceptions of the brand, which revealed that the overall dining experience wasn’t quite as memorable or exciting as the food. “It wasn’t that [customers] weren’t satisfied with [the dining experience], it was just that it didn’t differentiate us,” explains Wright. “The reason people chose us was because of the food and that was it but the risk, when you’ve got all your eggs in one basket, is that it only takes a competitor to come along and deliver food as good as yours or better than yours and you’ve got a problem. You have to have more value than that.”
As Wright points out, good food is no longer enough – diners want Instagram-worthy dishes and interiors and the success of restaurant chain Byron has demonstrated the value of having a playful and dynamic approach to branding and interiors. Wagamama’s new design concept puts the focus back on its kitchen (which was a key feature in early restaurants), highlighting the freshness of its food, but it also gives restaurants a cosier and slightly more sophisticated feel. New crockery and staff uniforms were introduced and new tuna, pork and steak dishes to entice customers in at different times of day, encouraging them to visit after evening cinema or theatre trips instead of just for lunch or an early dinner.
The following year, Wagamama worked with ad agency 101 to create a new advertising campaign and placemats for restaurants. The placemats and OOH ads featured striking images of dishes from Wagamama’s menu, showing the ingredients in each dish. The aim was not just to entice new customers to the restaurant but to encourage returning ones to try new dishes (see our feature on the project here).
The brand also worked with Pearlfisher to create new takeaway packaging, which launched in October 2015. Takeaway dishes are packaged in stackable, recyclable bowls. Bowls are wrapped in belly bands listing the entire takeaway menu and are designed to ensure food arrives looking fresh – not as if it has been stewing in a delivery driver’s bag.
“As a brand we saw delivery coming fairly early and we knew what it meant – and as a result, we positioned ourselves to succeed,” says Wright.
“I think it’s far and away the best takeaway packaging on the market,” he continues. “You still get a lot of brands who are delivering food in Tupperwares or cardboard boxes, but we chose to invest in something that really reinforced our values and our brand and you know, wanting joy from a bowl, trying to almost in some small way replicate that restaurant experience in people’s homes by at least having the continuity of a bowl and something that looked really nice, and that had that love and care in terms of the design.”
The investment has paid off, he says: “People love it. It’s not just the fact that it looks great but functionally, it performs really well. It retains heat … it travels better, so the presentation when it arrives is something we’re much happier with than something where everything is squashed into a little box and dumped on a plate … and customers have been quick to give us that feedback,” he adds.
Wagamama’s menu is updated annually and includes a mix of new dishes and popular classics (chilli squid, introduced in 2009, is its most popular side dish and chicken katsu remains a favourite main). The brand makes regular trips to Japan and Korea to uncover new dishes and ingredients but Wright says it is important that new dishes complement the existing menu. “We don’t want to become too distanced from where we started, so it’s important that what is on our menu is reflective of our original inspiration,” he says.
In an industry that is often fixated on the next big thing – whether its cronuts or ice-creams wrapped in waffles – this is a refreshing approach. Wagamama has always been keen to bring Japanese and Asian food to the masses – and having an accessible menu filled with popular, well-known dishes is key to this. So too is making sure dishes are clearly explained: the brand’s website features photographs of each item on the menu alongside nutritional information and an explanation of how it is cooked.
Wagamama has a loyal following but its challenge now is to introduce the brand to new markets and younger generations. The brand still works with agency partners but has been building its in-house brand and creative teams. It has recently appointed a creative director to oversee restaurant design and hired Joss Bynoe as head of brand in December last year.
Bynoe has been reviewing the company’s approach to marketing and advertising and says she would like to see it find new and innovative ways of reaching younger consumers and people who might not have visited Wagamama in a while. Wagamama has always had a fairly restrained approach to advertising – relying on understated and playful outdoor ads and little else (save for the A-boards outside its restaurants) – but this might soon change.
“I think we do a great job of talking to our fans – people that love our food and know us and continue to come back to us are very loyal, and I think we do a good job of creating marketing and comms to cater to those people … [but] one of the things I think about is that often you’ll talk to people and they’ll go, ‘Oh I love Wagamama, but I actually haven’t been there in a while’,” says Bynoe. “I want to know, ‘what is the reason for that? How do we start to dial up talking to people beyond our fans and get people more familiar with our brand?'”
She is also keen to build the brand’s presence on social media: “We will never be, nor do we aspire to be a Pizza Express who go after families specifically but [families] come to our restaurants, so [we’re thinking] ‘How do we start to use platforms, mediums and channels that talk to younger audiences to make sure that they become [Wagamama] fans for life?'”
“At the moment one of the things I think about a lot is how do we talk more about the work that we do? I think previously it’s probably true to say that a lot of our comms focus was on restaurants – the placemats, the A-boards outside restaurants … and then we had a couple of campaigns each year which would be on OOH advertising – but less so in the PR space, or traditional through the line campaigns,” she continues. “I think more and more what we’re trying to do is proper, traditional, through-the-line, so you’ll have PR and in-restaurant [promotion] but what about radio? And what does print look like?…. Before, we would have never spent money on social posts or geo-located messaging, but now we’re doing that, we’re testing Snapchat filters [with new restaurant openings]. We’re just testing new mediums,” she adds.
Wright and Bynoe put Wagamama’s success down to careful expansion and innovation that is based on customer insights and not chasing trends. The brand has had to evolve to survive in a competitive market – and Wright and Bynoe say it will continue to do so – but it has grown without losing sight of what made it popular in the first place.
“When a business has the benefit of being young, and the founders are still around … you can afford to be fairly intuitive … but as you mature as a brand, and grow up as a business, and the years pass by, the business tends to get bigger, management tends to get a little further away from the restaurant and the consumer and you need that conduit,” says Wright. “You need to be able to be in touch with the consumer to really understand their needs and deliver them. If you don’t, that’s when you’re in danger of losing touch.”