Caterer and Hotelkeeper 100: Robin Rowland, YO! Sushi

01 July 2011
Caterer and Hotelkeeper 100: Robin Rowland, YO! Sushi

Overall ranking: 31 (ranked 59 in 2010)

Restauraunt ranking: 10 (ranked 18 in 2010)

Robin Rowland - Snapshot

Robin Rowland is the chief executive of YO! Sushi , which was founded by Simon Woodroffe in 1997. The company, which is owned by private equity firm Quilvest and the senior management team in the UK, owns, operates and franchises more than 55 conveyor-belt sushi bars in the UK (and counting) and 11 internationally, offering a mix of traditional Japanese and Western recipes in high streets and concessions, along with a home delivery service called YO! To Go.

Robin Rowland - Career guide

A 22-year-old Robin Rowland joined Whitbread Inns in 1984 as area manager in charge of a mixed estate of 20 venues that included a Michelin-starred restaurant, a pilot Brewers Fayre and a nightclub. He moved on to Grand Met Retail in 1988 to manage Old Orleans Restaurants, which he grew from five to 20 sites over the next four years.

When Scottish & Newcastle bought the business in 1992 Rowland became restaurant operations director, running an estate of 80 food operations that embraced country hotels, central London dining pubs and themed restaurants.

By his mid-thirties, keen to return to the London restaurant scene, Rowland joined City Centre Restaurants (now The Restaurant Group) in 1995 to turn around its Mexican chain, Nachos. He then spent the next 18 months as group franchising director seeking UK and international development partners.

Rowland joined the fledgling YO! Sushi as chief executive in July 1999 and, in 2003, led a £10m management buyout of the company - backed by Primary Capital - when the group had 12 sites and sales of £12.5m. Rowland and his team then grew the number of restaurants rapidly to 30 by March 2008, which saw a second management buyout valued at over £50m by its current investors - Quilvest - and the YO! Sushi senior management team including Rowland.

Pub operator Marston's appointed Rowland as a non-executive director in September 2010.

Robin Rowland - What we think

Since joining YO! Sushi, Rowland has steered the group through some early poor site decisions - and brand extensions - that included the sale of two under-performing restaurants and the three YO! Below bars.

The rapid expansion has not been driven in typical chain fashion, however. Rowland's ethos is to never build the same restaurant twice, with lighting, seating, video screens and uniforms all flexible depending on location. The food offering is also fluid, with the menu of about 90 dishes reviewed at least once a year.

Rowland has worked hard to drive customer loyalty, building a database of 250,000 people, each of whom has signed up to its YO! Love Club and receives a monthly news e-letter. It seems to work, with about 20% of YO! customers eating there once a week.

Rowland is certainly not one to rest on his laurels, and May 2010 saw the launch of a new 70-seat London restaurant inspired by trends from Tokyo, featuring interiors with a red-and-black colour scheme and a "heaven and hell" theme. YO! Sushi's signature conveyor belt snakes around the entire restaurant, making it accessible from every seat. Fifty new dishes are exclusively available at the new Market Place site.

Speaking to Caterer, Rowland said: "We have no plans to roll out all of these new elements but will see which work and take individual ideas to new sites."

YO! Sushi opened 10 new outlets in 2010, at Edinburgh airport, Milton Keynes and London's Festival Hall. This year [2011] it opened in Manchester Piccadilly station and Westfield Stratford City (next to the Olympic Park) has confirmed YO! Sushi as an operator.

Rowland has said that expansion plans are dependent on finding the right sites, but realistically he wants to open "between five and 10 sites a year".

Rowland clearly drives YO! Sushi's innovation, capturing the social media whirl of its customers. It was the first restaurant chain to adopt the Facebook Places system in the UK, launched in January 2011. Rowland said: "Constant innovation and cutting-edge technology, in addition to great food, is at the heart of YO! Sushi…Our customers are the most technologically savvy in our sector so this deal will really turn them on. Plus, the opportunity to potentially reach over 26 million active Facebook users in the UK is unbelievably exciting."
Robin Rowland's ranking in the 2010 100 >>

YO! Sushi to offer free meals in Facebook Deals launch >>

How discounting has changed the face of casual dining >>

YO! Sushi website >>

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