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Space Matters


One of Europe’s most influential restaurant concept creators at both ends of the spectrum, Alan Yau is the father of ground breaking formats like Wagamama and Hakkasan. At the 13th European Foodservice Summit in Zurich, he shared his methods of and approaches to concept development and his vision of ‘emotional architecture’. www.alanyau.cn

Since he invented Wagamama in the early 1990s, Alan Yau has added various highly acclaimed restaurant concepts to the British and international world of foodservice: Hakkasan (Michelin-rated Chinese fine-dining), Cha Cha Moon (Chinese noodle bar), Sake No Hana (modern Japanese dining), Yauatcha (contemporary dim sum teahouse) and Busaba Eathai (Thai cuisine). And he brought the Princi bakery from Milan to London.

“It all began when at the age of 28 I came back to London from Hong Kong, where I was trained to become a McDonald’s franchisee, but didn’t like it,” he recalled. Back in the UK, he met a Japanese girl nicknamed ‘Wagamama’, who told him that the one thing she missed in London was Japanese noodle soups. Yau applied what he had learned at McDonald’s about systematisation to the desired product and decided: “I can do it.”

Why ramen? “Because it’s one single product with only three basic components: the soup base, the noodles and the toppings,” Yau explained and admitted: “I was brainwashed about the McDonald’s philosophy of system at that time.” A name was quickly found: ‘Wagamama’ – “I liked it phonetically and typographically,” Yau revealed. He understood that hot noodle soups cannot be sold in a classic fast-food concept, “because what is most important about fastfood is portability. But ramen you need to eat with chopsticks.” According to Yau the lack of portability is why many eastern products are not suitable for a western-style fast-food environment. “In Asian restaurants, you have much longer dwell times.” As a result he wanted to create a ‘spatial anchor’ for the product to work in line with speed and kitchen capability.

At that time, there was no terminology for the kind of restaurant he had in mind in Europe, so he called it “non-destination restaurant.” “Indeed, it was a blueprint for the fast-casual segment,” Yau pointed out, showing a chart with one vertical line and several horizontal lines in a 90° angle. “The vertical line is the open kitchen, the horizontal ones the bench seating at Wagamama. It’s applicable to almost every product: Indian food, pasta, kebab…”

The key line for Wagamama was “positive eating, positive living,” according to which he created a manifesto of brand attributes: first of all wabi sabi, the Japanese living and art philosophy, which was translated by architect John Pawson into a western interpretation of minimalism for the design of Wagamama.

Secondly, by implementing the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen into the overall management ethos of the brand, Yau found a way to maintain quality and consistency of the product. With the term ‘ramenology’ he described the desire to completely focus on the quality of the brand’s core product. “It means that we have to discover better recipes and ways of maintaining quality every day,” Yau said and criticised the recent addition of sushi to the Wagamama menu. The final point of the manifesto is ‘communalism’, first and foremost expressed in the bench seating at Wagamama’s. “The idea behind it is that I like people sharing food. It’s our egalitarian ethos to serve all in equal dedication.”

Yau called his way of developing a concept ‘Emotional Architecture’: “It is about the feel of a space rather than its aesthetics, function or form, it is about touching the soul of the place: how everyone engages in the process of making a house a home.” He remembered being inspired by the Shakespeare quote ‘All the world’s a stage’ to create a space shaped like an ‘elevated U’ for a duck restaurant in Beijing: “The concept distills the notion of the restaurant as theatre. The raised platform, the elevated U, literally places the diners on a stage where they become a player in the experiential drama. The stage, the U, is intuitively and beautifully designed to create fascinating, cinematic views across the room.”

Yau’s perfectionism became apparent when he explained that he believed that there is a ‘Golden Ratio’ or ideal dimensions to everything – even to restaurant chairs, which should be 380 mm high, while tables are exactly 680 mm in height and only 600 mm deep. Lamps (50 watts!) should be fixed at an angle of 8° above the tables and the optimal circulation channels between the tables are between 350 and 800 mm wide. For several of his restaurants, i.e. Wagamama and Princi, he had songs produced to express the corporate ethos and the emotionality of the brand. The kinesthetic aspect of his restaurants’ space is influenced by fans – “I like the movement and the air,” Yau stated. No wonder that he also cares for the olfactory side of his concepts and creates brand smells. “Space is matter,” was his final conclusion: “You have to get to a level of understanding whereby you are able to interfere with space when executing a project,” he recommended. “Concept Development should be more than the articulation of space; it should be about the transformation of space!”