Never heard of Wagamama? It’s a pan-Asian noodle shop loosely based on the ramen houses and noodle stalls that are ubiquitous in Japan. The menu concentrates on rapidly cooked, Japanese-inspired dishes that feature noodles or rice augmented with a range of fresh, healthful ingredients. Starting with a single unit in London in the early 1990s, the chain has grown to 65 restaurants—45 in the United Kingdom, the rest split between Australia, New Zealand, Dubai and a handful of European cities including Copenhagen and Istanbul. So far, the concept has worked everywhere.
Wagamama’s offerings are affordable, but not cheap. Entrees prices fall in the $8-$12 range. Drinks and sides generally cost between $3 and $6, although the generous serving size of the noodle- and rice-based dishes dictates that few side dishes are sold. That $3 drink price seems high, but Wagamama manufactures lots of raw juices in-house. Beer, wine, soft drinks and tea round out the beverage options.
Like all Wagamama restaurants, the Boston unit has a look, feel and vibe that place it just above the level of a fast casual operation, but it’s a full-service restaurant. For the U.S., the company is keeping its core menu favorites (ramen, chicken katsu and yaki soba) and tinkering with a few additions designed to appeal to American palates. That’s how a pricey $13.75 teriyaki steak soba item made it onto the Boston Wagamama menu.
The company’s initial Boston unit seats 133 inside, with another 50 spots available outside during the brief New England summer. Open for both lunch and dinner, the company expects to turn its tables four times each day. Most international units are franchised, but Wagamama is keeping Boston for itself. Later this summer, the company plans to open a second unit, this one on JFK Street in Cambridge. Business so far at Faneuil Hall has been brisk, although some customers are taken aback by a service style which sees waitstaffers deliver each dish the moment it is ready, foregoing the conventional full-service approach of bringing all of a table’s food at a single time. “Food arrives as it is cooked,” is how Wagamama describes this service idiosyncrasy.
There are two reasons why you should keep an eye on Wagamama.
One is consumer acceptance. Wagamama was voted the most popular restaurant in London in both the 2005 and 2006 editions of the Zagat London Guide. It beat out, among others, fellow Japanese restaurant and worldwide franchise Nobu and Gordon Ramsay’s string of Michelin-starred restaurants. This is akin to Chipotle Mexican Grill outpolling Daniel Boulud and Mario Batali in the New York City Zagat ratings. Clearly, Wagamama is getting an awful lot right and is in tune with how people want to eat today.
The second is that Wagamama intends to expand elsewhere in the U.S. “Our feedback to date has been fantastic and we are optimistic about the potential of our initial two Boston-area locations,” says Steve Hill, Wagamama’s CEO. “We are now working towards identifying a third location in Boston and thereafter will look to expand further throughout the East Coast.”
It’s a unique situation: Never before has a wildly popular, affordable full-service restaurant concept invaded the U.S. Wagamama is going to be a tough, tough competitor wherever it goes. But at least you can fight back by menuing its best dishes or co-opt it by opening a similar concept yourself. Most of what you’ll need to know to do either is in the Wagamama Cookbook. Buying a copy is certainly cheaper than buying a franchise—especially since in the U.S., those franchises aren’t for sale.