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This chain has tuned into the foody zeitgeist for fast, healthy, cheap fare in a setting that is funky but utilitarian, in the zenish style the Japanese do best.

wagamamaAmber Brown checks out why the demand for this fare has been so overwhelming.

Wagamama is Japanese for wilful, cheeky child. A brat, you might say. Someone who demonstrates their lack of respect for received wisdom by doing exactly the opposite.It is also the perfect name for the noodle bar sensation taking Australia by storm.

Sitting in one of the Sydney outlets, the setting is one of many contradictions. While the restaurant is chic and funky, with long wooden tables, tall windows and dimmed lights, the young and trendy diners are joined by business people, families and couples of all ages.

While the food certainly proves convenient, with my noodle dish hitting the table less than five minutes after ordering, the fresh, locally-produced ingredients cooking before me in the open plan kitchen are far from what is expected from a fast food joint.

Wagamama have decided to do things their own way, and in the process have turned the traditional concept of convenience food on its head.

Wagamama tells patrons they may have to queue, share tables, and accept that their meals come at different times. And the rules go for everyone too, and clientele such as Prince Charles, Kylie Minogue and Robbie Williams have all spent time waiting in line for their favourite dish.

The first Wagamama restaurant opened in 1992 in Bloomsbury, London, and due to phenomenal demand there are now 34 outlets worldwide, and growing. Next year the brand will go to Singapore, Korea, Taiwan and Japan, moving to America sometime after.

One of the men responsible for bringing the brat to Australia, Stewart Koziora, says they can hardly keep up with demand. "There could be a thousand in the US within five years if they wanted to," he says. "But I don’t think they’re going to do that yet. There’s definitely the demand. But in Australia there will be at least 35 sites in the next five years."

Wagamama has managed to capture an important niche in the notoriously competitive food market, and their concept is proving both hugely successful and impossible to replicate. Offering noodle and rice dishes modelled on the popular ramen stalls of Japan, Koziora believes the Wagamama concept brings a new type of convenience food to the market, which has appeal across the board.

"What we’ve been able to bring to the marketplace is a niche offering," he says. "People can go in and out just as fast as McDonalds, but here they get good quality food. They get low, low fat, good quality ingredients, user-friendly service standards and get in and out of here for less than $20."

Accessibility is also a major attraction. But there is no such thing as a typical Wagamama customer. "We’ve had customers from the 100 most richest people in Australia eat at the restaurant, as well as secretaries" he says. "It’s female friendly, not in your face or snobby. It is cool and funky and people have tattoos and ear piercings, but that’s what Wagamama is about—there’s no real standards like that."

Despite qualifications in accounting, Koziora wanted to work in hospitality from a young age. He became manager of a McDonalds restaurant in his native Brisbane at just 15, and when he moved to Sydney ten years later, he wanted to learn the trade from an industry master. "I searched out people I wanted to work with," Koziora says. "I’m a strong believer in being mentored, and learning from other people’s experience. There was a couple of people I targeted and the one I wanted to work with most was a guy called Bob Lapointe."

Lapointe is the man responsible for bringing Kentucky Fried Chicken, Lonestar Steakhouse, Pizza Hut and Fasta Pasta to Australia, and he also helped to establish McDonalds down under. Needless to say, Koziora learnt much about the franchising business from the man he calls ‘the captain’. And the captain obviously spotted the potential in his protege. "He’s the pioneer, an absolute legend," Koziora says. "Within 15 minutes I had a job working with him as Chief Financial Officer. Within a year he replaced his son with me as CEO."

With hands-on franchising experience to his credit, Koziora and business partner Luke Fryer set about negotiating a licence from Wagamama UK. It took nine months for them to finalise the license, but from the moment they got the green light, things moved very quickly.

Active ImageWithin five months, the pair had the first restaurant at King Street Wharf up and running, and it proved a roaring success. Less than two years later, there are four Wagamamas in Sydney and one in Melbourne. But that’s nothing in comparison to what Koziora has planned for the future. "We’re going to double the size of the business within six months," he says. "At the moment we are a $10 million company, we want to be a $20 million company. We’re going to have a 100 percent increase in top line sales within six months. It’s going to be tremendous growth."

While the Wagamama brand is obviously thriving, marketing plays an important part in achieving the type of growth Koziora is looking for. For inspiration, he is looking to the huge success of Krispy Kremes Doughnuts. Like the doughnut chain, Wagamama have had no television or radio campaigns, instead relying on food giveaways and ‘Tasty Tickets’, which offer free juices, free wine and buy one meal get one free.

The cheeky child of Wagamama has inevitably popped his head up in their advertising campaigns. "We put bibs around all the statues in the city, which said ‘I’m not moving til I have a chilli beef ramen’, we got in a lot of trouble for that!" Koziora says.

Another publicity stunt saw the Wagamama Mini Coopers towed away from outside the Kylie concert, making sure all eyes were on the brand.

Koziora says the secret to Wagamama’s global success is based on a combination of factors. "It’s a number of things, and that’s why it’s hard to replicate, because nobody really understands it. It’s about branding, it’s about getting good value for money, it’s about quality of food, the service standards, the right type of marketing. At the end of the day it comes down to value for money—for $20 where can I get a better value meal experience?" he says.

It certainly seems Wagamama has struck the perfect balance with their restaurants: convenience with quality, healthy but tasty, speedy yet personal. Koziora believes the demand for convenience is higher than ever but fast food has to change to meet consumer demands for higher quality, fresh ingredients and healthy meals. "People are still eating out for convenience, and the quality of our food is comparable to any restaurant in this city, but you’re getting it for a third or a quarter of the price,"he explains.

The future is looking good for Wagamama, and Koziora is certain you’ll be seeing a whole lot more of the cheeky Wagamama brand. "I’m staking my reputation on it!"

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