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The brand, from restaurants to recipe books, is as famed for its minimalist aesthetic as its streamlined menu.

Credited with creating the casual-dining experience popularised in the 90s, the first Wagamama opened in Bloomsbury, London in 1992.

Founded by Alan Yau, who went on to create the Michelin-starred restaurants Hakkasan and Yauatcha, the restaurant was inspired by traditional Japanese noodle bars.

Wagamama's minimalist aesthetic, canteen-style layout and speedy service proved popular, as did the style of food on offer. The unusual idea of customers sharing tables with strangers introduced a more relaxed atmosphere to British dining and has been adopted by numerous eateries since.

Unusually for a restaurateur, Yau does not cook.

His father owned a string of Chinese takeaway businesses, where he helped serve as a youngster, and, despite his best efforts to avoid the family trade, Yau returned to the business in 1986 with ideas of a fast-food restaurant for Asian cuisine.

On the back of his success helping his father open another restaurant in Peterborough, Yau briefly worked at a McDonald's franchise in his native China, reportedly as a way to help him develop his fast-food concept.

Having established two locations in London by 1998, Yau left the business, selling a majority stake to venture capitalists.

With Yau's legacy and the Wagamama template laid out, expansion overseas commenced with a franchise in Dublin. Between 2000 and 2005 Wagamama appeared even further afield, including locations in the Netherlands, Australia, Dubai, New Zealand and Belgium.

Overseeing the chain's expansion was Ian Neill, bringing to the business his experience growing successful dining brands such as PizzaExpress, and later, Leon and Jamie's Italian.

The Wagamama menu of ramen, soba and udon noodles and a vast array of dim sum dishes doubles as a place mat on which speedy servers circle the customer's order. The chain also embraces technology, with waiters using handheld PDAs to send orders directly to the kitchen.

These systems designed for streamlining the customer experience, from the furniture layout to the menu design, have been integral to Wagamama's success, as has its affordability. By 2010 the chain had 66 UK outlets and 39 overseas, with sales of more than £100m in the previous year.

The Wagamama name now appears on two successful cookbooks and a range of ready-to-use cooking sauces available from supermarkets, offering fans a taste of Wagamama at home.


James Joice, client director, JKR

James Joice, client director, JKR

The best ideas always appear obvious in retrospect. It is now plain to see that there was a glaring gap in the market for a contemporary Asian restaurant brand. Traditional Chinese has long been an important dish in our cuisine - only Indian would be considered more 'British'.

But the red and gold signage, dragons, lanterns and calligraphy represent the China of old. Wagamama, on the other hand, provides a taste of what's to come; an appetiser for the dynamic new Asia that we're all now struggling to keep up with.

The Asian economies have rewritten the rules in pursuit of economic growth - Wagamama has done the same with restaurant design. Convention went in the bin. You share a table with strangers, the menu is printed on paper not bound in leather, the kitchen is in full view and your food arrives when it's cooked, not at the same time as your fellow diners' meal.

Secretly, we all recognise these as the ingredients of a model driven by efficiency, but they are served up in such a way that they feel like virtues rather than sacrifices. They create a more casual and egalitarian dining experience that looks to the future, not the past.

The minimalist approach also has the effect of making the food feel simple, and, by implication, more healthy. US fast-food chains conquered the world, but they've never convinced on quality. No wonder Wagamama's star is rising.


1992: Alan Yau set up Wagamama (the name means 'naughty child' in Japanese); the first restaurant was in Bloomsbury, London.

2000: Manchester became the first location for a UK Wagamama outside the capital.

2005: A majority stake in Wagamama was sold to private equity firm Lion Capital, owners of Jimmy Choo and, until recently, cereal brand Weetabix, for £102.5m.

2005: The chain's 50th restaurant opened at London's Royal Festival Hall.

2006: Wagamama was named most popular London restaurant by Zagat ahead of The Ivy and Le Gavroche.

2010: A Wagamama app was introduced, offering customers the ability to place takeaway orders.

2011: Lion Capital sold its stake in the business to Duke Street.

View more Champions of Design


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