Why sushi boss may say Yo! to robot waiters 


In a London sushi restaurant in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, Richard Hodgson is debating whether to order salmon sashimi or chicken katsu curry. He goes for both. After all, it’s on expenses as he’s the boss of the chain, known until recently as Yo! Sushi.

Following a global rebranding exercise it is now officially just Yo!, and Hodgson is keen to stress it doesn’t just sell sushi, but a range of Japanese and Asian food from chicken gyoza to popcorn shrimp.

‘Ramen, katsu, noodles, seaweed,’ he says, reeling off some of the 77 dishes on the menu, of which only a third are sushi. ‘Apart from the aubergine, there’s nothing I don’t like.’

The company’s reinvention is a response to the pressure-cooker climate on Britain’s high street for the once-booming affordable dining sector. Household names such as Jamie’s Italian, Byron Burger and Carluccio’s have been forced to close sites and cut rents through drastic restructuring.

Yo! boss Richard Hodgson, pictured at one of his many sushi restaurants in central London

Yo! boss Richard Hodgson, pictured at one of his many sushi restaurants in central London

Hodgson couldn’t be clearer: the only way to survive is to adapt to the seismic changes sweeping the sector. ‘Life is very difficult,’ he says, listing labour costs, business rates, a weak pound and the vast array of competitors as factors hitting his restaurants’ profits. ‘Everyone thought affordable casual dining was the saviour of the high street. But too many opened, demand didn’t keep up, and that put people out of business.’

When Yo! Sushi opened in 1997, founded by entrepreneur Simon Woodroffe, it was ahead of the curve as it offloaded colour-coded plates of Japanese food from its kaiten conveyor belt.

It captivated diners with the theatre that Woodroffe had seen in restaurants in Japan, such as machines to pump out the rectangles of rice, a robot-powered drinks trolley, and – in the days before the smoking ban – smoke-extracting ashtrays.

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Now Hodgson, who became chief executive of Yo! two years ago after four years running Pizza Express, is innovating again to keep the company growing.

Last Monday, the chain ditched its trademark conveyor belt in an £800,000 concept restaurant that opened in the Westfield shopping centre in West London.

‘The belt has worked for 20 years, and it’s great for people by themselves,’ he says, nodding towards a solo City banker spooning miso into his mouth. ‘But in somewhere like Westfield, we want to cater for families with children.’

If the trial proves successful, the idea could be rolled out to other restaurants.

Hodgson, who has spells at Asda, Morrisons and Waitrose on his CV, has also signed an exclusive deal with Tesco to open hundreds of takeaway sushi stations in its supermarkets, with 50 set to open this year. Pizza Express, his previous employer, sells more pizzas in supermarkets than in restaurants, and Hodgson says this is ‘exactly the same’ route rivals selling sushi and other dishes have to take to keep the money rolling in.

Hodgson, who has spells at Asda, Morrisons and Waitrose on his CV, has also signed an exclusive deal with Tesco to open hundreds of takeaway sushi stations in its supermarkets, with 50 set to open this year

Hodgson, who has spells at Asda, Morrisons and Waitrose on his CV, has also signed an exclusive deal with Tesco to open hundreds of takeaway sushi stations in its supermarkets, with 50 set to open this year

‘If you’re just a restaurant business, you’re limiting accessibility,’ he explains. ‘More and more people are staying in, with the explosion of Deliveroo and Uber Eats, and are demanding restaurant-quality food at home. The great thing about sushi is it travels very well.’

Woodroffe, who is currently developing his private Caribbean island into a Yo! resort, remains ‘excitable’ about the firm’s future, despite becoming a multi-millionaire by cashing in his shares, Hodgson says. Last year, the founder joined Hodgson on a trip to a robotics fair in Germany, where they previewed a new technology that lets plates glide along the surface of the table on magnets and watched a robot making sushi.

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Hodgson rules out robot chefs – he doesn’t want to be ‘gimmicky’ – but it seems as if robot waiters could be on the cards. With palpable enthusiasm, he says: ‘There was a technology where a little robot brings you the food, stops, beeps, the customer takes the food and then the robot scurries back to the kitchen to wait for the next plate.’

Updating Yo!’s technology to help customers choose their table, place their orders and pay their bill quickly is another focus, because ‘speed is important at lunchtime’. And next month, the chain will cut the sugar content of its menu by 23 per cent, after the British Dietetic Association called the 23.6g of sugar in its Korean Fried Chicken a ‘real concern for obesity levels’. ‘The sugar in some of our dishes is too high,’ Hodgson says. ‘Customers really dislike hidden sugars, such as in sauces.’

Like many other casual dining chains, Yo! is backed by private equity. Its owner, Mayfair Equity Partners, gave Hodgson the brief of turning the firm from a ‘pretty small UK business in a challenged sector’ into a ‘truly exciting global business’, ahead of an eventual sale.

To this end, Yo! has expanded internationally on a grand scale since Mayfair took control in late 2015. First it spent £59 million on a takeover of Bento Sushi, the largest sushi manufacturer in Canada, where sushi is so mainstream it’s sold in schools. Next it snapped up Taico, a London sushi manufacturer that supplies Waitrose, and then Snowfox, the second-largest sushi supplier in America.

The deals mean Yo! has 116 restaurants worldwide, from Paris to Istanbul and the UAE, and 1,400 Snowfox, Taico and Bento kiosks in supermarkets, train stations, hospitals, universities and airports.

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Sales have ‘quadrupled’ to $425 million over the last two years, says Hodgson, who monitors the performance of each site through an app on his phone. The top grossing restaurant is Heathrow Terminal 3, taking up to £20,000 a day, and the top takeaway kiosk is in the CostCo supermarket on Hawaii, selling around $45,000 of sushi a week.

The prospect of a No Deal Brexit is therefore ‘a concern’, says Hodgson, who voted Remain. But he insists the global business is secure, despite pre-tax losses of £31.7 million last year. ‘We will cope and do our best not to pass on inflation to customers,’ he says.

While business waits for Brexit to be resolved, he’s busy dashing all over the world – Mexico one month, Australia the next – on his ‘personal mission’ to bring Japanese food to the masses.

RICHARD HODGSON, 49: SPICE-LOVING LEEDS FAN 

Born: Leeds.

Lives: Amersham, Buckinghamshire, with wife Vicki and their three children: twin girls Isabel and Grace, 11, and seven-year-old son Ben.

Favourite Yo! dish: The kicking salmon roll. ‘I love spicy food.’

Hobbies: Leeds United fan and enjoys playing football and golf.

Favourite TV shows: Peaky Blinders, left, Match Of The Day and Big Little Lies.

Career: Started as a graduate trainee at Dalgety, then joined Asda as a tea and coffee buyer, rising to marketing director. He then held senior commercial roles at Waitrose and Morrisons before becoming CEO of Pizza Express in 2013.

 

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