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Caterersearch.com 100: Robin Rowland

01 July 2010

Overall ranking: 59

Restaurateur ranking: 18

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 64 conveyor-belt sushi bars - 49 in the UK - 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

The 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, Chiquito. 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.

In May 2010 Yo! Sushi launched a new site in central London featuring a new design concept, a cocktail bar and a new menu.

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 poorly performing restaurants and the three Yo! Below bars.

Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Harrods, Railtrack and BAA - to position the brand in a number of high-profile locations.

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 entire menu of about 90 dishes reviewed at least once a year.

Rowland has also 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 be working, with about 20% of Yo! customers eating there regularly 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 current 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, offering a range of 50 new dishes available only at the new Market Place site.

Speaking to Caterer, Rowland said: "We went to Tokyo to see what's happening in the Japanese restaurant scene and came back with a range of new design and menu ideas which we have introduced at this restaurant. 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 is on track to open 10 new outlets in 2010, with the next sites set to open at Edinburgh airport, Milton Keynes and London's Festival Hall.

"Future expansion plans depend on us finding the right sites," Rowland said. "We're not in a numbers game, but realistically we'd like to open between five and 10 sites a year."

Robin Rowland - Further information

Yo! Sushi launches new London site >>

Yo! Sushi sold to Quilvest >>

Yo! Sushi unveils pictures of its new takeway concept, Yo! To Go Kiosk >>

Read more about the Caterersearch.com 100, the list of the most influential people, here >>

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