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Yo! America! The British are Coming...
So get your chopsticks ready for the U.K.'s Yo! Sushi invasion

Fall 2002
By Martha O’Connell

Yo! America!  The British are coming so start clicking those chopsticks.

Yo! Sushi, the UK restaurant chain promoting this paradox between East and West, has its sights set on the United States for its novel sushi outlets.

The company’s plans for the U.S. are ambitious – it wants 100 sites in five years.  But if Yo! Sushi’s reception here is anything like the way UK consumers took to these eateries, that plan is attainable.

Yo! Sushi’s entry into the U.S. aims to break down some of the intimidation and barriers Americans have for sushi dining.  Although sushi is not new here, Yo! Sushi does two things sushi customers are not accustomed to: it puts diners at ease and even entertains them.

“We are clearly looking at the metropolitan areas – more sophisticated markets like on the East Coast – New York and Boston, Washington and Miami.  On the West Coast, it is pretty evident – Los Angeles and San Francisco,” says Robin Rowland, the company’s managing director.

Two hospitality industry heavyweights are working on the U.S. launch: Sarah Palisi, chief executive officer of Dallas-based Enersyst Development Center, and Lane Cardwell, president of Cardwell Hospitality Advisory and former chief administrative officer of Brinker International.

Rowland says they are working to secure a joint venture partner by the end of the year that would provide capital and personnel.  Yo! Sushi would provide technical know-how and brand for a U.S, chain.  He adds that this will probably not be done through a franchise model because Yo! Sushi wants to maintain tight control on its stores.

U.S. interest in this low-capital restaurant concept is high.  Rowland adds that the company has received about 300 inquiries from the U.S. about crossing the Atlantic and is talking with 20 restaurant groups.

Yo! is a colloquial greeting amongst Japanese men, but ironically the chain was founded by British rock producer Simon Woodroffe, who staged shows for top stars like Elton John, the Moody Blues and Rod Stewart for nearly three decades.

Currently, Yo! Sushi has 18 UK locations since its 1997 opening.  Sixteen are in London and two are in Edinburgh, Scotland.  Two are located in Selfridges and Harvey Nichols – major London department stores – and are among the highest grossing per square foot restaurants in the UK.

Another 15 UK sites are planned by 2005 and many will be built as concessions in airports or railway stations, in addition to retail mall spots.  A Kuwait site is slated for a December 2002 opening as part of a plan to open 20 stores in the Middle East by 2007.

Yo! Sushi is currently taking in the equivalent of $18 million U.S. dollars annually and is on course to increase that to $30 million by 2003, Rowland says.

Good food is only half the strategy.  The rest that intrigues diners is the unique self-serve equipment that most customers use for service.

Customers are fixated by Yo! Sushi’s food display on some of the world’s longest conveyor belts.  Since customers can help themselves, wait times for servers are reduced and customer turnover is higher than at traditional table service restaurants.  Menus explain the food, which educates diners and cuts out embarrassment for those new to the cuisine.

“It does have novelty value.  It gets people over the barrier of coming into sushi restaurants,” Rowland says.

And if the operating systems isn’t enough to put diners at ease, it’s evident that Yo! Sushi doesn’t take itself too seriously.

A singing wait staff services the bar, and free shoulder massages and tarot readings are offered there too.

Indeed, these restaurants pack a big punch in a short time.  The average stay at a Yo! Sushi is 25 minutes and the average tab per person is $15.

The chain has three operations: the main dining area, the bar named Yo! Below because it is in the basement under the dining room, and delivery, aptly named Yo! To Go.  Catering is also available with conveyor belts that can be set up at events and sushi sold in supermarkets.

As far as mechanics go, the conveyor belts are what have brought Yo! Sushi much attention.

Yo! Sushi locations vary from 850 to 4,500 s.f..  The kitchen is in the center surrounded by conveyor belts that snake around the restaurant.  Conveyor belts vary from 100 to 50 meters long and some stores have two that can run in opposite directions.

The belts resemble those in a factory and operate at variable speeds.  A London company, Brilliant Stages, custom makes them with pieces that quickly click together.  A throwback to Woodroffe’s music promotion days, the company makes stage sets for rock acts such as U2 and The Rolling Stones.

Furthering its self-serve approach, Yo! Sushi lets customers obtain their own beverages.  The dining area has self-serve taps for still and sparkling water.

In the bar, self-serve beer is available at taps that can serve a table of about 12 people.  A waitress turns on the tap, which dispenses half pints and totals them up.  Staff can turn off the tap remotely.

Answering critics of London’s smoky pubs, Yo! Sushi installed “smokeless ashtrays” that suck it out of the bar air.  A fan under a glass ashtray pulls smoke out of the air from as far as two feet away.  From there, it is sent through a pipework and expelled into the outdoor air.

They are made by the London company Harris Blyth, which also makes one of the major stars of the show, a modified version of a robotic drink server.

The armless robots are essentially traveling, talking refrigerated carts three-and-a -half feet tall that run on a track embedded in the floor and carry beers, wines and saki.

They detect anybody who stands in front of them and talk in pre-programmed voices offering customers drinks.  Children love them and adults are amused as they admire this manifestation of Japan’s love affair with technology.

In the kitchen, the time consuming task of turning out rice cakes is done mechanically with sushi machines from Suzumo Machinery, a Tokyo company.  The equipment turns out roughly 1,500 nigiris, similar to rice cakes, per hour, compared to 200 a chef could do by hand in the same time.

A wait staff is available for personal food or drink service and can be summoned by call buttons.  When the button is pressed, a light or sound is activated to notify servers, eliminating customer wait time to catch server’s attention and expediting turnover.

Plates for Yo! Sushi’s 150 menu items on the conveyor belt are color-coded by price so checks can be quickly processed.  They also are tagged with descriptions of the food and have polycarbonate covers to keep food fresh and clearly visible.

After a customer finishes eating, a server takes the plates to a register where the check is added up and presented back to the customer through iN.fusion, PAR Tech’s point-of-sale system. 

The system from the New Hartford, New York-based company controls many operations on site and provides business data critical to the corporation.  Among them, it tabulates accurate, presentable checks for customers, it transfer guests between the bar, dining and carry-out operations, and assesses profit margins on new items.

“You have complete menu management in terms of controlling the gross profits of a particular product,” says Peter Hickman, PAR’s regional director in Europe and Africa.

Yo! Sushi’s UK explosion is boosting hope that the concept will be a hit in the U.S. where diners have already been introduced to sushi.  The concept’s potential audience and territory will be much broader, but Rowland is ready to take it on.

“America is my focus because it is the biggest market and it should not be the easiest one to crack, but it should be the one that’s the most fun doing,” Rowland says.



Yo! Sushi at a glance


Number of stores:  16 in London, 2 in Scotland, Kuwait site slated for Dec. 2002


Operations:  Dining, bar, take-out/delivery, and catering


Menu items: 150 main dishes and desserts


U.S. plan: 100 stores in five years focusing on major metropolitan areas


Equipment: automated conveyor belts, self-serve beer and water taps, smokeless ashtrays, “robotic” self-serve beverage carts