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.
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.
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.
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, and
decided 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.