‘Wagamama will be a global brand’—Campbell

Wagamama can grow into an internationally renowned brand in the next few years, chief executive David Campbell told CGA Peach’s Peter Martin at the Casual Dining show last Thursday (25 February).

Wagamama is about to open a new restaurant in New York, with company-managed sites in more cities to follow, Campbell said. “New York is off the scale for the apparent desire for what we want to do.” He added of international plans: “By the end of the next decade we definitely want to have created a global brand.” Investors were fully on board, he said. “We’re fully funded for our ambitions.”

Wagamama remains in expansion mode back in the UK too, having moved away from suburban targets in favour of cities, including London. “We’re an urban brand. We’d started in London but hadn’t opened that many there for a while.” As it expands it wants to move out of the basement locations where Wagamama made its name in the early days—and that’s particularly important internationally. “In the UK the brand is still strong enough to pull people around the corner… in the US they have to be prime sites.”

Campbell also reflected on the Wagamama brand and how it has changed—both over the years and since he took control. “It was still a strong brand but had lost a bit of its momentum—not its direction, but not going as fast as it should have done.” For reference, he turned to The Way of the Noodle, the book written by founder Alan Yau. “It was going back to the things that were core to that book—asking where we might have lost our way.”

It led Wagamama to increase the emphasis on the freshness of its food, bringing its open kitchens to the front of restaurants. “That’s really important, because people see the food created in front of them.”

Campbell arrived at Wagamama from a career outside the industry, but said that benefited him. “If you’re coming from outside you’re willing to embrace change… if you’re working inside a business the hardest thing is to give up on something that used to work and find another way of working.”

Having brought the Wagamama team on board with the new plans, Campbell now wants the business to become self-sustaining and able to promote from within. “At a management level we’re pretty good, down to GM and head chef level—but as we go down the restaurants we’re not as good as we could be, and that’ll be a big focus this year… getting the right people recruited is crucial.”

Wagamama will also be adopting more technology—another hallmark of the brand. Customers can now pay at tables with an app produced with Mastercard, and the big project for this year is the introduction of a new own-brand, integrated and global app. New feedback technology will help too. “We’re starting to get ahead again [on technology],” Campbell said.