Profiles

Wagamama founder Alan Yau uses his noodle

In 1988 Alan Yau turned his back on an academic career and opened a Chinese takeaway. The chain of canteen-style restaurants he launched later recently sold for record-breaking sums. Jane Lewis reports.

926-Yau-634

Talk about paying oodles for noodles. On one analyst's reckoning, the Restaurant Group's £559m buyout of the noodle chain Wagamama, which was agreed last month despite the objection of 40% of the group's shareholders, "could be the highest per restaurant ever paid in the UK", says The Guardian. With 133 directly owned restaurants, Wagamama changed hands at roughly £4m a site a record-breaking sum, which, in the current environment, can only be described as "brave".

You might expect the sale to have meant a whopping pay day for the chain's founder, foodie entrepreneur Alan Yau. But he lost touch with Wagamama decades ago: selling out to private equity in 1997, just five years after starting the chain in 1992.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Become a smarter, better informed investor with MoneyWeek.

The lost fortune doesn't bother him, he told The Sunday Times in a recent interview. "Material wealth doesn't interest or drive me," what matters more is karma, spirituality and meditation he once spent nine months in a Thai monastery. Even so, part of him still rues the sale, which paved the way for Wagamama's eventual global expansion. "It was like seeing your baby brought up by strangers with different values."

A restaurateur with eclectic flair

"In the league of great London restaurateurs," Yau, 56, "stands out for his eclectic flair," says the FT. After his first big hit with Wagamama which, with its canteen-style and inexpensive menu, was an innovative "democratic dining project" in the capital he went on to open the "achingly fashionable" Hakkasan in a basement down a back street off Tottenham Court Road. It soon had a waiting list weeks long and won a Michelin star in 2003.

Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

In a career now spanning 30 years, Yau has pioneered everything from a Chinese gastropub to a Turkish pizza joint and a Milanese-style bakery in Soho. Some projects bombed. But over the years he's realised millions. In 2008 alone he made £50m plus after selling several businesses, including Hakkasan.

The second of six children, Yau grew up in Hong Kong before moving with his family to Norfolk aged 12 where his father, Yau Cheung Wo, a tailor in Hong Kong, ran the kitchens of a local chop-suey house.

His parents mapped out a professional white-collar career for him and, after studying philosophy and politics at City, University of London, Yau joined the engineering giant GKN. But in 1988 he opened a small Chinese takeaway in Peterborough with his father, made his £50,000 investment back within the year, anddecided he was "more suited to an entrepreneurial life". Later he came up with the idea of launching a "Chinese McDonald's", but struggled to make it work until he devised his "anchor" product, his "Big Mac": basically, a type of noodle soup. Wagamama was born.

His first big idea

This year Yau opened a new southeast Asian venture, Madam Fan an "etiquette-free" fine dining experience, intended to shake up staid Singapore. Yet he is "both troubled and inspired by his own history", says the FT. For years he fantasised about returning to Hong Kong, but his experience opening a restaurant there was challenging. "It was like a romance," he reflected in 2015. "Like in Cinema Paradiso when the protagonist returns to the village he left there was no cultural dialogue any more."

Yau's "natural habitat" remains "London's Soho and its borderlands" and he intends to stick around. "I really want to work into my 80s," he observed recently. That's to all our gain, concludes The Daily Telegraph. Long may this "endlessly creative force" continue to flourish.

Advertisement

Recommended

Visit/economy/people/600864/rishi-sunak-the-maharaja-of-the-yorkshire-dales
People

Rishi Sunak: the maharaja of the Yorkshire Dales

Rishi Sunak is taking the reins of the world’s fifth-largest economy at a crucial juncture. The unflashy but likeable youngster may be just the man fo…
20 Feb 2020
Visit/economy/people/600829/les-wexner-the-merlin-of-the-mall-loses-his-magic
People

Les Wexner: the Merlin of the Mall loses his magic

Les Wexner built a retail empire from scratch and made a fortune in the process. He ended up placing his trust and many powers in the hands of disgrac…
20 Feb 2020
Visit/economy/people/600788/bernie-ebbers-the-downfall-of-the-telecom-cowboy
People

Bernie Ebbers: the downfall of the Telecom Cowboy

Bernie Ebbers had the starring role in the greatest rags-to-riches story in US corporate history. A plot twist at the end turned it into a different k…
10 Feb 2020
Visit/economy/people/600741/kim-woo-choong-the-ambiguous-legacy-of-daewoos-chairman-kim
People

Kim Woo-choong: the ambiguous legacy of Daewoo's Chairman Kim

Former Daewoo chairman Kim Woo-choong inspired a generation of entrepreneurs. His empire collapsed and his career ended in ignominy, but was he to bla…
3 Feb 2020

Most Popular

Visit/investments/property/house-prices/600840/the-biggest-risk-facing-the-uk-housing-market-right-now
House prices

The biggest risk facing the UK housing market right now

For house prices to stagnate or even fall would be healthy for the property market, says John Stepek. But there is a distinct danger that isn't going …
17 Feb 2020
Visit/investments/stocks-and-shares/600863/sirius-minerals-anglo-american-takeover
Stocks and shares

Do you own shares in Sirius Minerals? Here’s what you need to do now

Mining giant Anglo American has proposed a cash takeover of Yorkshire-based minnow Sirius Minerals. Unhappy shareholders must decide whether to accept…
20 Feb 2020
Visit/currencies/600842/eur-usd-euro-slide-against-us-dollar
Currencies

The euro’s slide against the US dollar looks set to continue

The euro has been in a bear market against the US dollar for two years now. And on a broader scale since 2008. A decline like that is telling us somet…
19 Feb 2020
Visit/517625/tr-european-growth-trust-why-investors-shouldnt-overlook-europe
Sponsored

Why investors shouldn’t overlook Europe

SPONSORED CONTENT - Ollie Beckett, manager of the TR European Growth Trust, tackles investor questions around Europe’s economic outlook and the conseq…
6 Nov 2019