Interview with Alan Yau OBE
Alan Yau started his career in 1992 founding Wagamama and was awarded an OBE in the 2006 New Year Honour’s List for services to the restaurant industry. Following that, Alan founded numerous ventures in gastronomy such as Hakkasan (awarded a Michelin Star in 2003), Yauatcha (awarded Michelin star in 2005) and Park Chinois. In 2016 Alan pivoted into the software world and founded Softchow, a taste aggregation platform.
In April 2019, The Asian Awards honoured Alan for his culinary work with the “Outstanding Achievement in the Arts” award.
Alan Yau knows the restaurant business from the ground up, he started out in a provincial takeaway, but now operates on a world stage.
“We were quite poor and coming to the UK was my first experience of racism. It helped me to be a much more focused person – I saw education as the only way out.”
At what age were you exposed to the industry?
At age twelve. I came over to the UK from Hong Kong and my father was in the Chinese restaurant business.
So did you help out your father in the business?
Yes. It was from sixteen when I was able to converse in the English language. Initially, I was helping in the accounting side rather than on the food side.
What were you like at school? Were you a good student?
No, I was a very bad student. In Hong Kong I hated education at school. There was a huge change when I came to the UK, partly because I think the environment changed. School in the UK isn’t as competitive or high pressure. We were quite poor and coming to the UK was my first experience of racism – it helped me to be a much more focused person in that I saw education as the only way out.
Did you have creative vision from a young age?
I’m not sure about vision but yes I do have a much more creative side, especially things like graphic design, photography and fashion.
Did that develop from a young age or was it after your education?
More like it’s a hobby – I suppose it got stronger with age. I suppose I started when I was thirteen or fourteen.
Did you ever have a mentor? Someone that inspired you?
No, not really but I had a very good almost educational mentor. A couple of years before I decided I wanted to go into the restaurant business, because of my early age exposure to things that were fairly negative such as the working hours, I felt I needed something that is much more aspirational to entice me to go into it wholeheartedly. So, I thought I could have a possibility of turning Chinese food into fast food. So from there I hired the chairman of Kentucky Fried Chicken UK who became a consultant for me and spent six months doing feasibility studies on whether Chinese food can be fast food.
At the end of the day we abandoned the project for two reasons. Firstly, the fundamental essence of what defined fast food – and the skill factor – meant it would be virtually impossible to do. The second thing was the portability. At that time it was fairly hard to cover a whole product that allowed the concept of portability to take place so we abandoned that. I became very interested in the definition of fast food and what it was about. So the consultant almost became a mentor – in the sense that I talked to him like a student in a seminar or tutorial. From there I spent a few months in Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s – exposure.
Was that your first food venture? How did your career start in food?
My first food venture was in a partnership with my father in a Chinese takeaway in Peterborough. I did it as a hobby because at the time I was working for a company in Watford, and in those days Peterborough was one of those special zones managed by Peterborough Development Corporation. They were tendering out new units in one of these new centres and because those units didn’t involve any premium I thought I could have a go.
So I got my commercial manager at GKN to stay involved and help me put the tender documentation together and work through the profitability. This was an exercise in relation to what level of rent we could pitch the tender at. To my surprise I was successful, so from there I did that on a part-time basis as my first business with my brother.
And then from there where did you go?
From there to Wagamama.
That’s quite a big jump isn’t it?
From there I literally spent a lot of money doing the feasibility studies on Chinese fast food. That’s part of the idea, because having one Chinese takeaway there were so many shortcomings in terms of how the operations run – it’s so dependent on chefs and everything. I thought that with the fast food idea I could overcome a lot of the problems; hopefully it would make the whole concept much more scalable for expansion.
Did you find it difficult to get financial backing?
How did you go about it?
It was difficult for two reasons – firstly, I wasn’t a London-based person. At that time to come in from having a business in Peterborough meant nobody really wanted to talk to me because of a lack of credibility. The second thing is because the concept was so new that it was hard even to convince my banker in Peterborough about the whole proposition. So as a result I had to get funding from the equity side and the investors came on board. So everything was on the table, absolutely.
What do you think is the biggest mistake that you see restaurateurs make?
I think two things. One is this idea of having a fast fix. Some operators are oblivious; sometimes you get the impression that they really don’t go into the idea of opening a new restaurant wholeheartedly – it’s almost like ‘Well we’ll put this money in if it works, then we will spend a little bit more to make it better’, you know?
The reason why they don’t want to spend so much money at phase one is just in case it doesn’t work. That happens much more at the lower scale in terms of the size and the locality of the business, and the problem with those is that because the product is only half-cooked as it were, therefore, there is no concurrency in the interface with the consumer, because the consumer also felt that the product is also half-cooked.
Secondly, money in the sense of budgeting for the fit out in terms of the capital expenditure, and also budgeting for working capital for the restaurant opening. Partly because I have not seen any project actually work in line with a business plan as far as the top line revenue is concerned. You have to have some cash base available to surface the loss until the business is able to go to proper grounding.
All the restaurants you have created have a real focus on presentation. Do you think the presentation is as important as the food?
It depends. I think if you asked me to prioritise it as a product then I think food has to come first, followed by the presentational aspect of a business. For me I would not say they are equally as important but the presentational side comes second nature to me, so in that sense a lot of people think a restaurant is too designer orientated, but what they don’t know is that design is within my heart and with everything I do.
So I have not deliberately gone out to create something overtly in terms of the presentation as a package. The second thing is, this is a very hard business. To be honest the design aspect is merely something in terms of having some fun with a project. Where I try to work much harder is really in the kitchen and on the food. The design side is a hobby – it’s part of the aspect that gives me interest in the business.
Can people present a restaurant and food creatively without a huge budget, or is it something crucial that they should borrow extra for when they are getting funded to start a restaurant?
No. I don’t think a big budget is necessary. I don’t think it’s a critical element. Obviously if you have it it would be nicer, in terms of having something that is much more polished, but at the same time I think you can do something that has a level of taste. To me taste in a surmounted way is more important than being trendy or fashionable. If I spent a lot of money it may not necessarily be to do with design or to make the place fashionable, but I spend the money on the much more quality aspect of the fit out, making sure that everything is properly built – especially the back of the house, especially the kitchen.
We specify the best in terms of equipment. What I am trying to say is that if they were getting budget constraints I think you can do something very tasteful and at the same time have a successful operation without the need to spend too much money. But taste also comes back to the criteria of good design, and that needs to be thought through thoroughly. More importantly the type of the overall concept needs to be there, say, as a workable application when you go through the various disciplines within the development of the property.
What is the biggest mistake you have made in your career? Do you have one?
I think the biggest mistake was to bring a venture capitalist on board in 1996 – I was very commercially naive about what I was prepared to give away, or what I signed on a piece of paper. Those were the lessons learned as you mature.
So advice to young people, think before you sign away percentages?
Yes, I think you need to be very careful about paperwork. I think the important thing is the legal side and the financial side.
What would you advise young people who want to get into the restaurant industry, is there anything specific you think they should know?
Only do restaurants if you truly believe in the business, you have got to like the business because it is a very tough business. The risk is very high in relation to the rewards. And be prepared to travel a lot.
Can a young person opening his or her first restaurant aim for a five star establishment or should they start with a more basic place and grow from there?
I think it would be easier to do something fairly simple as part of a learning curve into the industry.
Do you think it is important to have commercial experience in a restaurant or as a chef before opening your own place?
Not as long as you are prepared to go through the learning curve, but it would be a lot easier to do something fairly small and simple as a proposition than to go straight to the deep end.
Did you feel that you were taking a risk when you opened Wagamamas?
Yes, but at the same time, I felt that at least I would break even with the business. Also there was so much passion within myself wanting to do a totally uncompromising idea, and really the fact that you have to do things from the heart and be prepared to go through with that.
Where do you get your inspiration from to create innovative dining experiences?
By traveling. It’s strange, I travel a lot, and how my mind works is it’s like I have various ideas at the back of my mind stored like files within a computer, then within each of those ideas, they have a leading component that represents what the concept is about. As I travel I go to these places, I get an idea and slot them into those files, and in terms of the acquisition of those components the inspiration is through seeing, then the urge becomes stronger to bring it out into reality, as it were.
Do you modify things you might see abroad and recreate them in your mind to suit?
Yes but only in components. I never take the whole concept because taking the whole concept is OK, but from a creative point of view the enjoyable part is really to see your baby or the things you put together actually work in reality, and if they are working in reality they become successful. That is mentally rewarding.
How important do you think relevant training is to get into this industry – as a chef or as an entrepreneur as well?
As a chef it is very important, but as an entrepreneur no. I think as an entrepreneur you need to have a very good understanding of finance and a very strong passion about the restaurant business.
How important is the location of a restaurant?
I would say it depends on the concept. I think if you have a product that requires a high frequency of traffic then the location becomes even more important because you don’t have the element of exclusivity to attract people. Having said that, in some of my products the locations are very secondary and the reasons are that those products are a one off, and if your offer in terms of the whole proposition is strong enough you become greater.
So in that sense for me personally it’s not so much the location that is more important, as the quality of space. For me, the quality of the space and whether the space itself is working in relation to the concept you had in mind is much more important. This is because at the end of the day there is an element that allows you to plan the restaurant how you think the concept works rather than buying location first, but you compromise on the quality or the workability of space and hence the concept needs to be compromised in terms of how you envisage the whole thing will look and feel.
Should competition of a nearby similar cuisine stop someone from opening do you think?
No. I don’t believe you can call competitive advantage through lack of competitors in any particular location. I think nowadays – especially in central London – there are so many things you are competing with, that I think at the end of the day it depends on how strong your product is and how special your product is. I think you can overcome competition in terms of geography and in terms of the same cuisine through how strong your products are.
You don’t go out of your way to promote your restaurants – is there any psychology behind not taking bookings?
Yes because I really don’t operate at the mass market level that requires much more marketing. I am trying to make them that much more special and hoping that the quality will show through, while word of mouth and everything else will do the job in terms of attracting an audience and their attention.
Do your employees grasp the importance of customer service to the success of a restaurant, or is this something you always aspire to?
It’s something you need to work on constantly. I think in a way the issue with the restaurant business – likewise with most service-orientated industries – is people, and you need to work on it all the time.
When you started did you think you were going to create something on this scale?
No. I do every project with one thing in mind and that is really that I want to implement 100% of what I had in mind as a vision and no compromise. The second thing is that regardless of what I do in terms of cuisine, I want to be the best. In the last few years – again regardless of what type of restaurant – I want my project to last and those are very important. Whether my restaurants become an iconic brand or not I feel much more proud if my project can outlive me and it will still be here in a hundred years time; to me that’s a true test of how good the product is.
What role do you think someone just opening a restaurant should have to ensure a tight ship? In the kitchen or greeting the customers? Or should they be everywhere?
I think as a restaurateur or an entrepreneur you need to know every facet of the business. I think the more important thing is really rather than having a focus on one, you need to have a good understanding and good coverage of every single area.
What attitudes and beliefs got you where you are today?
Wanting to in terms of projects; wanting to be the best and also to build to last.
What is your attitude towards what some people refer to as failure?
I think it’s good. It helps us to learn and I don’t think we should treat failure as a failure in a negative sense. I think we should treat failure as a good learning exercise, with a caveat that if people treat failure as such and they are prepared to really reveal the mistakes and actually learn from them and to move on, then I think that’s good. I think it should be something which helps us to move on mentally, give us a degree of maturity and also allow us to stay in touch and to be humble. I think that is important.
What do you attribute your fast success to?
I’m not sure whether it’s fast to be honest. In that sense, as a personal goal, I have failed in terms of what I wanted to do within the last two decades. In terms of setting a personal goal about where I wanted to be when I am thirty and where I wanted to be when I’m forty – in that sense I don’t think it’s fast.
Is there any mind set or any way of working that you say ‘That is why I have achieved that’?
I think focus is important.