With the opening of a new store on Palm Jumeirah, Wagamama is launching a new world-wide strategy, called the Kaizen concept, designed to raise the standards and uniformity in its restaurants across the globe, as Catering News ME discoveredThe story of Wagamama, which means naughty child in Japanese, began in 1992 with the opening of the chain’s first restaurant in Bloomsbury, London. Although it is a widely recognised family friendly concept today, with restaurants spanning across 17 counties, the idea of fresh, fast food and a relaxed atmosphere akin to Japanese noodle bars was quite striking in the early nineties.
In Dubai there are now four Wagamama restaurants. The first to open, in 2004, was Wagamama Crowne Plaza, located on Sheikh Zayed Road, with The Greens and Al Fattan Towers, in Jumeirah Beach Residence following just a few years later, and the latest opening on The Palm Jumeirah only last month.
With the latest offering, Wagamama is introducing the “Kaizen” ideology (meaning “continuous improvement” in Japanese) to the brand, with The Palm Jumeirah branch being the first venue of its kind in the UAE.
Highlights include the new Omakase section of dishes (Japanese for “the chef’s selection”) as well as refreshed restaurant interiors and décor. The new location on The Palm Jumeirah also features an al fresco dining area and a fresh juice bar. Charlotta Ashour, country manager for Wagamama Middle East, reaffirms: “The constantly evolving brand is firmly ahead of the culinary curve.”
“We are extremely excited to launch the new concept here in the UAE,” says Charlotta. “This is just the first step in our expansion as we have plans to open further venues across the country in the next year. Wagamama has been a huge success in the UAE for over a decade and we aim to continue this momentum.”
In explaining the Kaizen concept, Charlotta says: “As part of the Kaizen concept we want to make the restaurants a warmer and more inviting space. No longer a quick lunch offering, but rather somewhere guests can relax over a long dinner. The Wagamama concept is still there but we are stepping up a notch.”
With guests encouraged to stay longer, the concept raises questions over the rate of turnover, but Charlotta assures: “The turnover will be more around lunchtime servings, whereas in the evening people will stay longer but the average spend will increase.”
This brand revolution began in September 2014 in the UK, but the new build in the Golden Mile Galleria, Golden Mile 1, Palm Jumeirah is the first new-look store in the UAE. A revamp of the Greens branch, in line with Kaizan, will be completed by December and JBR will be refitted early 2016.
Next year the brand is looking to expand into Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Ras Al Khaimah for new stores, building on the four in Dubai to total seven across the whole Emirates by the end of 2016. Internationally, all future stores will built to the Kaizan concept.
Charlotta adds: “We want to see Wagamama open in the largest shopping malls going forward. In Ras Al Khaimah we are looking at the Al Hamra area, in Al Ain at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium and in Abu Dhabi we are currently tendering at the Midfield Airport.”
A franchised Wagamama restaurant is set to open in Bahrain, with plans underway to open in Saudi Arabia and to build on the chain’s first store in Qatar.
In line with this change in mind-set, the interior has been redesigned with the removal of the traditional long hard benches in favour of bar stools, high chairs and smaller two-seater benches, designed more around groups and families. The concept introduces a preparation table into the dining area for the chef, so private catering can be more involved, while the kitchen is opened entirely to put the myriad of kitchen staff fully on show.
The dining space is broken up by huge display cabinets, which are adorned with the kitchen ingredients. “We want to show diners exactly what goes into their food,” explains Charlotta.
In addition there is an alfresco dining area and a standalone juice bar, which Charlotta says is “deliberately separated to draw in its own customers”.
Another key change is orientated at the serving staff. “We are setting the team free – no more timings over service, no quick in and out dinners, and a playful and down to earth service style. We want the restaurant to feel more relaxed, like you are coming home.”
Gone are the standard uniforms, with staff encouraged to wear their own jeans, as a sign of their individuality – providing they are black. This is paired with a grey sweatshirt emblazed with the new logo of a Wagamama star and the Kaizen smile in red stitching.
Additionally, Charlotta says: “The menu is more visual, bringing the dishes alive, and the food must look and taste the same all over the world.” To this end, all key members of staff spend four weeks training in the UK, including a three day cooking course, with follow up training after three and then six months.
Exclusive to The Palm location, the chef’s selection of fresh and flavourful new dishes in the omakase section caters to a variety of palates from hot soups to mild curries.
The grilled tuna provides a healthy Asian twist to a popular menu item and it sits on a bed of quinoa, kale, red peppers, red onion and edamame beans. For seafood lovers there is a coconut seafood broth, which boasts a wholesome mixture of prawns, salmon, squid, scallops and mussels poached in a coconut and vegetable soup. And, for those looking for a more hearty option, there is the beef massaman curry with sweet potatoes, shiitake mushrooms and baby aubergine in a mild, fragrant massaman curry sauce.
Recently the flagship store in London introduced breakfast options and this may be something Charlotta introduces in the UAE later. “I might take a look at that as we certainly have the option here in the mall environment,” she says. For now, the naughty child will settle on rolling out the new brand across the MENA region, and ensuring uniformity across the global brand.