LUNCH WITH...WASABI

12/10/2016 - 08:32
The Wasabi story began in 2003 when the first branch opened in Embankment, London. Founder Dong Hyun Kim wanted to share his passion for fresh, authentic, handmade Japanese sushi and bento with Londoners...

Thirteen years later, the brand has 49 sites with a strong management team in place to expand the business even further. Maria Bracken met with Anthony Eadon, head of marketing and Scott Etherington, group finance director

What's your background?

Scott: I started out at GlaxoSmithKline, where I spent six years of my career.  I then moved over to Tesco and spent a further six years there. The last role I did there was head of finance for Tesco Express. I left Tesco and wanted to try something completely different, having spent 12 years in corporate. I hadn't worked in hospitality or restaurants before. The opportunity to work at Wasabi came up and I was very interested. Wasabi is an entreprenuial, fast growing brand with fantastic prospects and had just gone over to New York a year before I joined the business. So this role ticked all of the boxes for me to go from big corporate to a small to medium business.

Anthony: I started my career in the last 90's in marketing, working at Selfridges. I moved into food almost by accident. I moved from there to Acadia group and realised very quickly that I didn't want to do fashion, and moved back into food. I then spent 10 years at Pret.  I started as a communications assistant and the most senior role I held was interim head of marketing, sitting on the management team reporting into Andrew Walker, who was the managing director at the time. I also worked very closely with founder Julian Metcalfe. I then took some time out and did something quite conventional. Leaving Pret, I realised that yes, I had worked in the food industry for 10 years, however, I probably didn't have as much food knowledge as I needed. So I went and worked at contract caterer BaxterStorey in a really junior role in the kitchen. I did this for about six months and in this short period of time, I probably learnt more about food than I did in the years prior to that working in marketing. I loved it. I then moved straight from there over to Crussh. I worked very closely with the MD at the time, Chris Fung and founder James Learmond and it was James who gave me the brief to refurbish the entire estate which is what we did. That was a three year programme.

What impact have you had on the business so far?

Scott: Hopefully a positive one. One of things I have been working on is improving management information to ensure that we have great insight around sales, operational performance and making sure the business is making good sound commercial decisions. Founder Mr Kim has been instrumental in building a fantastically successful business. But now it is about helping to take it to the next level of professionalism. In the 18 months that I have joined, we have gone from having just me and a property director, to having Anthony, an operations director, head of IT and a HR director. So, we have built up this leadership team and it has been fantatsic. We now have  a strong team to take the business to the next level. It's been good for me to see this team mature and add value to the business. It has been an amazing journey in just these 18 months. I feel like I have been here for 10 years. I have probably aged 10 years too!

What is the business strategy for Wasabi?

Scott: One of the main objectives is to get to 100 branches in the next five years. We are targeting an average of 10 branches per year over the next five years. We currently have 47 Wasabi UK sites, plus two in the US, so 49 in total. All of our branches in the UK and US are doing really well, but New York is a big opportunity for us at the minute. There's nothing quite like Wasabi in New York. We have a great business over in New York, but it's just about making sure we can scale it in the right way.

What are the opportunities and challenges for Wasabi?

Scott: From a finance perspective, rents have been increasing at a very high rate. Most of our business is in London so that has been a challenge. Business rates from April next year are due to change and the minimum wage is going up every year. So there are a lot of cost pressures hitting the business and on top of that, we have Brexit. There are a lot of financial challenges, however that's my job to work through these. Wasabi has some fantastic opportunities. It is such a powerful brand which is incredibly popular with its customers. There's so many things we can do to grow and improve sales and margins.

Anthony: There's more opportunity to grow in the UK and what we have demonstrated with our most recent opening in Ealing is that we are able to serve residential areas well.  I think this opens an enormous market for us. There are also huge opportunities for us to expand outside of London. In terms of the brand, it is a great brand. But there is scope to expand on this.  It is all about evolving the Wasabi brand and making a pledge to our customers.

Identify your competition

Scott: This is anyone who operates within food to go, which we know is a crowded space but is a sector which is growing. Our customer base is evolving over time. It's not just office workers, it's also students, shoppers, commuters and tourists. This reflects the broader reach of sushi as a product.

Is the health trend here to stay?

Anthony: There is something naturally healthy about sushi so there is always going to be a market for us.  We have just driven some NPD into the business and introduced brown rice sushi which we have launched in 13 of our stores.  We have also launched salad pots which are very nutritious.

Is your pricing competitive?

Anthony: We do do the competitor benchmarking and we have a policy of selling our products more keenly priced. The key to what we do is our 'pick n mix', which is two bits of sushi for as little as £1.20. Founder Kim has always been very keen on this as it is a wonderful access point to new customers. So, if you're not sure about sushi, this acts as that introduction.  You can come here and have a decent meal and have change out of £6.

What are the up and coming trends?

Scott: From a finance perspective, according to industry forecasts, the foodservice sector is going to grow to £57 billion by 2019 and a lot of this is driven by people eating eating out more. 35% of  people now eat out. This is going to grow to 50% over the next four/five years.  Like-for-like growth is going to be there for the next five years. London is on an accelerating path and it is exciting times ahead for our industry.

Anthony: Food is the new fashion. Everyone is taking photos of what they are eating. People are also eating healthier. In a nutshell, this industry is going to get healthier.

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