Waga Whatta?

You know the world is shrinking when a British restaurant operator launches an Asian concept in the Yankee bastion of Boston. But Wagamama, a pan-Asian noodle house concept with a casualer-than-thou vibe, had a ready fan base before opening two locations in the city last year; the powers that be reckoned it made sense to go where the vibes were already good. The strategy appears to be working.

Americans who know anything about Wagamama (translation: willful, naughty child) are likely to have stumbled upon it in London, where the Zagat Survey twice named it the city’s most popular restaurant. In that wildly expensive destination, it’s hardly a surprise that cheap, fresh food would be a hit.

Alan Yau launched the first two noodle bars in London’s Bloomsbury district in 1992, then sold the concept in 1995; current majority owner Lion Capital (parent company of Weetabix, Orangina, Jimmy Choo and other consumer brands) has spread the love to some 50 locations in the U.K. and another two dozen scattered throughout Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Dubai.

But, except for a following of value-oriented jet-setters, Wagamama is still an unknown quantity in the U.S. That stands to change if things go well with the first two locations, in Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall and on Harvard Square in Cambridge. But don’t expect to see a Wagamama sprouting on every corner soon; if Lion does expand the brand in the U.S., it will do so slowly and deliberately.

The Premise

Wagamama’s trademarks are an appealing combination of speed, convenience and fresh, healthful ingredients cooked to order. The menu is designed to attract diners of all ages and tastes. It incorporates a healthy children’s menu, vegetarian dishes, noodle- and rice-based recipes, a dozen or so Asian-inspired sides, ramen soups, teppan-style selections and fresh salads. Prices range from $2.50 for miso soup to $9.95 for a chicken salad to the most expensive item on the menu, ramen soup with either salmon or sirloin, for $13.75. Fresh juices, wine, sake and Asian beers are available.

The menu contains a fair amount of guidance, including how to order, translations for the various Japanese food terms and what’s vegetarian-friendly.

The menu also explains the quirks of service at Wagamama, which is unlike the typical American restaurant. Servers use handheld electronic devices to send orders quickly to the kitchen, and they deliver dishes to the table as they are finished, not all at once. So a party of four diners might end up with their food at four (or more) different times. There is no appetizer/entrée/dessert sequence. Dishes that might appear on a more traditional Asian menu as appetizers are labeled as sides.

Another distinguishing trait of Wagamama is the seating arrangement. The 4,600-square-foot Faneuil Hall space, designed in a signature minimalist style, is equipped with an open kitchen and long communal tables, where up to 133 strangers can rub elbows.

“We tried to create something that people don’t really have to think about,” says Paul O’Farrell, Wagamama’s U.S. c.o.o. “They just have to be hungry, they don’t have to think about the cost, the menu, making a reservation and the time, because that’s something they determine themselves.” The two Boston locations are open from noon until 10 PM and are busy throughout the day.

With the casual atmosphere, fresh and well-seasoned fare and midscale price points, Wagamama seems to be perfectly suited to Millennial and Gen X lifestyles. In fact, market research has found that the biggest group of customers falls into the 25- to 35-year-old category. The Boston locations are attracting their fair share of students, young singles and families.

The International Angle

Why now, and why Boston? Besides the built-in fan base, says O’Farrell, “there’s a very good restaurant infrastructure here, a lot of multiunit operators here and good design/construction companies based here.” In the past, when Wagamama has entered a new non-U.K., territory, a local partner was brought on board to build franchise units; in the U.S., restaurants will be company owned, O’Farrell says. That’s because doing business in the U.S. is not so foreign to a British company and, he adds, because the company believes it makes long-term financial sense to grow that way here.

When Wagamama has ventured beyond the U.K., the concept has emerged largely intact but for a few tweaks. “We do very minor modifications in different countries based on what customers think,” O’Farrell explains. One key concern is the type of protein the locals will prefer; in the U.S., for example, there is more beef on the menu than in other destinations. The Brits figured Americans also would want larger portions, but after a test determined that many guests were leaving with doggie bags, bigger plates were nixed. Prices in London didn’t necessarily translate to the U.S., so the company started with a blank slate when pricing the Boston menus.

Feedback through the website is a key factor in maintaining the concept’s appeal and in keeping it consistent across a number of countries. “At the end of the day, if you’re not producing and performing well, the customers will tell you,” O’Farrell says.

The web has also provided a cost-effective way to stir up buzz in new locations. A database of customers in Boston, for example, was mined for invitations to pre-opening trial runs. The personal touch isn’t gone, however: Wagamama also visited local businesses and invited them to the trial meals to create goodwill.

Opening in Boston gives Wagamama a beachhead that will allow it to branch out more easily in the U.S. Going forward, any development will most likely be limited to the eastern U.S.

“There’s no point in saying we’re going to open in California in two months’ time, because it’s a six-hour flight and we’ve just come from London on a seven-hour flight,” O’Farrell says. “It makes operational and strategic sense for us to stick to the east coast for the moment.”

Getting the right people in place is also a key to a concept like this that has international ambitions, O’Farrell believes. “If you don’t have the strength and depth of people who are very well trained and understand the culture of your business, that is going to restrict you,” he says. An experienced opening manager and chef and others moved from the U.K. to get the Boston sites open.

Whether Wagamama will move beyond Boston and how big it will end up being in the U.S. are still unanswered questions, but the early signs are good. “What we put down on a sheet of paper three years ago when we started this exercise: The expectation has been delivered,” O’Farrell says. “Nothing has come to us to say we need to change what we’re doing, which is fantastic.”

WAGAMAMA
CONCEPT: Casual full-service pan-Asian in a hip setting
ESTABLISHED: 1992
OWNERSHIP: Lion Capital, U.K.
SITES: varied
CHECK AVERAGE: Too soon to say; $18 systemwide
MANAGEMENT: Steve Hill, c.e.o.; Ian Neill, executive chairman; Paul O’Farrell, c.o.o., U.S.
EXPANSION PLANS: 150 worldwide

On the Menu

Gyoza

Five steamed, grilled chicken dumplings filled with napa cabbage, Chinese chives and water chestnuts served with a chili, garlic and soy sauce. $5.75

Chicken Itame

Stir-fried chicken breast with bok choy, red onion, red chilis, scallion, red pepper and bean sprouts served with rice noodles in a spicy coconut and green chili soup. $12.50

Yasai Katsu Curry

Deep-fried slices of sweet potato, eggplant and butternut squash coated in panko breadcrumbs, served with a light curry sauce and Japanese-style rice, garnished with mixed leaves and red pickles. $8.50

Yaki Udon

Teppan-fried udon noodles with curry oil, shiitake mushroom, egg, leek, shrimp, chicken, yaki chikuwa, bean sprouts, green and red peppers, garnished with spicy ground fish powder, black and white sesame seeds, fried shallots and pickled red ginger. $10.75

Grilled Yasai Salad

Marinated and grilled eggplant, portabella mushroom and zucchini, combined with caramelized red onion, roasted sweet potato, asparagus, diced tomato and mixed leaves, served with house dressing and crispy noodles. $8.50

Will It Fly?

Dennis Lombardi is bullish on Wagamama’s potential in the U.S. “I think they should do very well, as long as they make sure they make any subtle changes necessary to adapt to the U.S. market,” says Lombardi, executive VP of foodservice strategy for Columbus-based WD Partners.

One thing he recommends keeping an eye on is reaction to the communal tables. Lombardi says younger customers might like them, and older consumers might consider them a point of difference for the chain, but Americans definitely aren’t known for their comfort sharing dining spaces with strangers.

Another if is whether Wagamama’s parent company is sufficiently agile to outrun any potential copycats. “I think there’s a big chance that someone is going to see it in the U.S. and say, ‘This is neat—let’s do it,’” Lombardi observes.