London-born Wagamama takes another swing at U.S. growth

The pan-Asian concept opens a seventh unit this week in Tampa, with two more to come.
Wagamama Tampa
Wagamama's first unit in Florida is scheduled to open in Tampa on Feb. 11./Photo courtesy of Wagamama.

Wagamama is on the cusp of getting its mojo back.

So says Wagamama USA co-CEO Robert Cornog, who in a recent interview said the London-born pan-Asian concept is emerging from the battering of the pandemic and is starting to push the accelerator on growth. This week, for example, the full-service chain is scheduled to open for the first time in Tampa, Fla., which will be its seventh location in the U.S.

Wagamama restaurants are expected to also open in Arlington, Va., and Dallas before summer, and a location opened in Atlanta last year. Cornog and co-CEO Richard Flaherty see more opportunity across the Southeast, in the rather large circle of Washington, D.C., to Texas to Florida.

And the two CEOs say existing units in Boston and New York have regained their footing. “The good news is we have survived,” said Cornog.

Now the company can address the challenge it faced before the pandemic began.

Wagamama first debuted in London in 1992 as a trendy brand offering a Japanese-inspired noodle bowl menu in a modern setting with communal tables. The chain grew to more than 200 units across Europe and was acquired by the large hospitality company The Restaurant Group, or TRG, in 2018.

Meanwhile, the first U.S. outpost opened in Boston in 2007 and a few years later in New York City. But, despite a few fits and starts with growth, the chain didn’t really find its footing in America.

In 2020, Cornog and Flaherty partnered with investment firm Conversion Venture Capital to acquire 80% of Wagamama’s U.S. operations, with TRG holding the remaining 20% as a joint venture.

When asked what held back the concept’s growth in the U.S. up to that point, Cornog demurred, saying, “I can’t speak to the last 20 years. I can only speak to the last couple. We’ve done everything we can to go as fast as we can in the face of the most ridiculous headwinds the industry has ever seen.”

The two are veterans of the Punch Bowl Social eatertainment concept, also a once-hot brand that had its own challenges. They were later brought back to repair that brand after it filed bankruptcy in 2021.

Of course, for Wagamama’s U.S. reinvention, the timing couldn’t have been worse. The joint venture was announced in February 2020, and restaurants across the industry were promptly shuttered for dine-in by COVID restrictions a month later.

But now diners are back, office workers are getting lunch again, and Cornog and Flaherty are finally ready to show how Wagamama has been reworked to appeal to the post-pandemic American consumer, they said.

Across the U.S. units, the menu has been pared down to be more efficient, with a separate menu by daypart. Lunch is designed to offer speed and convenience, while at dinner the experience has slowed down a bit. Communal tables are an option for those who feel comfortable dining with strangers, but other seating configurations are also available.

Cocktails were always on the menu, but now Wagamama puts them at the forefront to encourage guests to stay a while and gather with friends and family.

In the U.K., Wagamama units don’t have bars, though guests can order cocktails that are brought to the table. But U.S. locations have a designated bar area, with bartenders, high-top seating and happy hours. Flaherty said they wanted to invest in that bar experience.

Wagamama Tampa

The bar area at the newest Wagamama in Tampa./Photo courtesy of Wagamama.

The co-CEOs brought in consultants to elevate beverage offerings. New shareable dishes were added to complement the drinks, like the new Tokyo Fries, a dish of sweet potato fries topped with barbecued Korean beef, sriracha, Japanese mayo and cilantro.

In addition, takeout and delivery has long been a big part of the operation, now accounting for about 25% of sales. But Cornog and Flaherty see an opportunity to boost off-premise sales with catering, particularly for office lunch occasions.

The size of Wagamama restaurants has also been trimmed down to about 4,000- to 5,000-square feet, compared with the New York restaurants, which are between 5,000- and 6,000-square feet on average.

But while other emerging restaurant chains have looked at adding drive-thrus and eliminating dine-in capacity, that’s not the plan for Wagamama, said Cornog. “We are not a drive-thru concept. We will not be shrinking down to 800-square-feet with two drive-thru lanes.”

Fundamentally, Cornog said Wagamama has the potential to be a 150-unit chain across the U.S.

But the two CEOs remain conservative about projected growth for now, especially given that the industry hasn’t fully shaken off pandemic-related supply obstacles that delay new openings.

“We’ll finish the restaurants we currently have under construction,” said Cornog. “And then we’ll build some more.”

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