U.K.-based pan-Asian restaurant chain Wagamama has announced a planned U.S. rollout that boasts new funding, new operating partners and a location opened last year in Midtown Manhattan. The 200-unit chain currently operates six restaurants in New York City and Boston.
Before kicking off its U.S. expansion, Wagamama launched a strategic review of its U.S. business and recruited Robert Cornog and Richard Flaherty as operating partners and co-CEOs of Wagamama USA. The two are experienced restaurant operators who as part of their portfolio were leaders of Punch Bowl Social, an experiential food-and-beverage brand.
Wagamama, launched in London in 1992, also entered into a U.S joint venture partnership with Conversion Venture Capital (CVC2) as a financial partner.
“Obviously, [Wagamama is] very well-known in the U.K. with almost 150 units there and another 50, plus or minus, in other parts of the world,” says Cornog. “Our goal is to grow the U.S. and transfer that iconic Wagamama brand here to the states.”
The popular chain has been one of the pioneers of communal dining and the open-kitchen concept. NREI spoke with Cornog to find out more about the chain’s expansion plans at a time when more consumers are looking for “experiences.”
This Q&A has been edited for style and clarity.
NREI: What are some challenges in launching a rollout of a U.K. concept in the U.S.?
Robert Cornog: There are challenges associated with every rollout, but I think one of the challenges is to recognize that the U.S. consumer, our audience here in the U.S., is a little different than the audience, the consumer in the U.K. So we have to recognize some of those subtle differences, and we don’t want to change the brand. We want to take advantage of everything that Wagamama is because it’s great, but we do need to make a few small tweaks or adjustments to really make it a better experience for the U.S. consumer.
NREI: What are some of those tweaks?
Robert Cornog: The menu isn’t going to change dramatically. However, some of the flavor profiles of the U.S. and the U.K. will be different. We will focus on fresh. We will focus on healthful. It’s a pan Asian-influenced menu. None of that’s going to change. We’re just going to tweak that a little bit for a U.S palette and a U.S. audience.
NREI: Can you talk more about the ‘experience’ element?
Robert Cornog: Restaurants have become more than food and beverage. It’s very important to provide your consumers with a forward-designed experience. When you walk into a Wagamama, there are communal elements that allow for group gatherings. There are opportunities for a person to have a quick lunch. There are opportunities to have an extended happy hour experience. All of those sorts of things are very much part of a design and a mindset. And we will not only expand upon those things, but we’ll continue to deliver the hospitality and the service that provides the underpinning for all of those types of experiences.
NREI: Why launch these ambitious plans now?
Robert Cornog: Wagamama and their parent company, TRG (The Restaurant Group), undertook a strategic review that started last year and really culminated in the announcement of this joint venture. So, part of it certainly was the timing of that strategic review, but really I think now is a perfect time even outside of that. The interest in Asian cuisine is on the upswing. The desire for an experiential restaurant is on the upswing in the U.S. And quite frankly, Wagamama is very in tune and well-positioned with respect to a lot of developing trends, including cuisines that cater to specific, what I would call dietary, desires. Vegan is one example. Right now on the menu is a Vegan rib.
NREI: Who’s your core customer base?
Robert Cornog: We serve a variety of customers. Wagamama can cater to a business professional at lunch. Wagamama can provide a great environment for a younger audience for happy hour. We have families in the restaurants on weekends. We’re less about a specific demographic and more about providing that experience and creating a restaurant environment that works for different people at different [times of day].
NREI: Which geographic markets are you targeting?
Robert Cornog: We have a great base of operations in the Northeast, so right now we’re less concerned about trying to find the best core spot in New York or Boston and really introducing Wagamama to different parts of the country. We’re not going to put one in Miami and one in Seattle; that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. But from a geographical perspective, we will be exploring new markets. We’ll look down the Eastern Seaboard, where I think D.C. is a great market for restaurants.
The Southeast is growing and there are a lot of cool cities—everything from Atlanta to Nashville are great opportunities. I have some personal experience with the West Loop of Chicago and that could very well be a great spot for a Wagamama. We’re committed to growing the brand, but in all candor, we’re at the very beginning of developing our real estate strategy as the announcement was just made in late February. So, I can’t give you any specific locations. What I can tell you is we will be expanding in regions outside of the Northeast, and we’re going to be looking at the very best real estate opportunities, and we’re not afraid to cherry-pick different markets.
NREI: How many restaurants are you planning to roll out in the U.S.?
Robert Cornog: I think if you look out over a handful of years, we very much intend to put 30, 40 of these in the ground. It’s an aggressive strategy. The premise of this is growth.
NREI: What types of locations are you looking for?
Robert Cornog: One of our most successful restaurants here in the States is in a mall at Prudential Center in Boston. That’s not our target, but certainly with our current experience that can work in the right set of circumstances. In New York and Boston, there are very few stand-alones, but we’re looking at best-in-class development or redevelopment. There’s the possibility for interesting stand-alones in the right neighborhoods. It’s not a small physical space, say around 4,500 square feet. We love outdoor space as does everyone. But that type of space works in a variety of different places.
NREI: With increasing class-A mall vacancies, will you look more at that opportunity?
Robert Cornog: We will look at that in the right set of circumstances. That’s a possibility. I would not call it our target. But by the same token, there are a number of malls or lifestyle centers that really work well and having a blanket, ‘No. We’re re not going to do that’ might actually preclude some good opportunities. So, we’re going to be open-minded. We’re going to be flexible, but we’re also going to be very much focused on the right opportunities with the right economics.
NREI: Which co-tenancies do you prefer?
Robert Cornog: We like gravity. We don’t want to be on an island. We’re not going to be pioneering the next neighborhood, if you will. We’re going to be more comfortable introducing a new menu, a new flavor profile, a new experience to an existing audience or an existing market that really has some gravity to it.
NREI: Will you offer delivery and how will that look in the restaurants?
Robert Cornog: One of the great things about Wagamama is the food travels really well. As a result, Wagamama in the U.K. has a significant delivery component, and a lot of the knowledge that has been acquired with that experience, we’re going to transfer to the U.S.
For instance, Midtown Manhattan, as everyone knows, is a dense population and has a meaningful lunchtime crowd, and we actually have separate entrance for delivery at our new Midtown Manhattan restaurant. We take great care and great pride in providing a good experience not only to the take-out customer, but to a delivery driver, so the delivery driver has a space to come in and get the food and doesn’t have to walk through the restaurant. That’s good for the people in the restaurant and that’s good for the delivery driver.