It took a life crisis for Simon Woodroffe to set up restaurant chain Yo Sushi. “I got divorced in the early nineties and was out in the wilderness for a long time. I was down to my last £200,000 tied to my flat and was desperate to do something with my life. That’s when I set up Yo Sushi,” he tells City A.M.
Twenty years on, Yo Sushi has more than 90 restaurants and Woodroffe, awarded an OBE in 2006, is no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the company.
But the success of the Yo restaurant business isn’t enough to satisfy the founder’s entrepreneurial appetite. Woodroffe, 65, has ambitions to emulate Sir Richard Branson and Virgin, taking the Yo brand far beyond its humble beginnings and across a number of sectors.
Having left school at 16, Woodroffe spent 30 years in the entertainment business, designing concerts for many artists, including Rod Stewart, Stevie Wonder and George Michael.
A key contact he made during this time was the producer of Japan’s version of hit music show Top of the Pops, who advised him to set up a “conveyor belt sushi chain [with] waitresses in black PVC skirts”.
Woodroffe set up the first Yo Sushi restaurant in Soho in 1997. Rather than waitresses, he opted for robots to serve customers.
To fund his first restaurant, Woodroffe took out a loan against his flat and managed to be taken seriously by putting Sony, Honda and All Nippon Airways on the front door and all over the menus.
Why? “Sony gave me four TVs, Honda gave me one delivery motorbike and All Nippon Airways upgraded me once. A week later, there were queues down the block,” he says.
The second and third Yo Sushi outlets were set up at Harvey Nichols and Selfridges.
Now, everybody and their mum has got a restaurant
Woodroffe offloaded a majority stake in Yo Sushi in 2003. He then sold his remaining 22 per cent stake in 2008, reportedly earning him £10m. “Money was rolling in and out because I’m that sort of guy,” says the London entrepreneur, who lives on a houseboat in Chelsea.
“Running the business, I’d learnt that I’m good at coming up with ideas while others are better at taking care of the day-to-day operations. I’m very proud of how the company has developed and the team has done it better than I could.”
Brexit to bite?
Woodroffe is still paid an annual royalty of one per cent of gross sales and has held on to the Yo brand name.
And with part of his own income riding on it, Woodroffe is only too aware of the challenges currently facing the restaurant industry.
The Restaurant Group recently decided to close 33 restaurants across the UK, while Jamie Oliver is to shut six outlets this year. In total, 5,500 restaurant firms could go bust within the next three years as a result of the Brexit vote, recent research by accountancy firm Moore Stephens suggested.
In addition to increased competition (“20 years ago, there weren’t many restaurants. Now, everybody and their mum has got a restaurant. I don’t think I could do now what I did then”), he is also concerned about the impact Brexit could have on the industry.
In search of Yotopia
But Brexit uncertainty is not enough to put Woodroffe off his business ambitions. “For many of us entrepreneurs, our view is business as usual, because there is a vast international and expanding market out there,” he says. “So if Europe doesn’t want our products, there are plenty others who do.”
After Yo Sushi, he set up Yotel, a hotel chain offering “small but luxurious cabins” and sold it to a Kuwaiti property giant. It currently operates hotels in Gatwick, Heathrow, Amsterdam Schiphol and Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, and plans to open new ones in Singapore, San Francisco and Boston among other cities.
His latest offering is Yo Home, a firm that makes prefabricated homes where walls slide away and dining tables rise from the kitchen floor.
The first set of flats is expected to be launched in Manchester this year.
“Yotel will eclipse Yo Sushi in the distant future in terms of the amount of money it makes and Yo Homes will be bigger than both of them put together,” he predicts.
Woodroffe’s Branson-esque vision includes all sorts of weird and wonderful concepts.
“I want to launch a spa chain called Yo Zone, and a floating island project called Yotopia whose tagline will be ‘everybody dreams of owning an island and now you can too’.”
He wants to launch a recording studio called “Yo You’re Famous” and a laundry business called “Wash and Yo”.
He also dreams of people investing in his businesses through a vehicle called “Yo Dough”.
Is there no limit to Woodroffe’s ambitions? Surely we’re not going to see Yo Airlines, Yo Trains or Yo Galactic in the future.
“Someone also suggested I should go in the funeral business,” Woodroffe jokes. “They said I could call it Yo Below.”