Britain's sushi entrepeneur and celebrity business adviser talks to Time Out about his big plans for Dubai.
What was the last meal you ate? The same breakfast I have every morning, made by my cook Sherry on our houseboat in Chelsea, London: a bowl of fruit with yoghurt followed by English porridge.
Why do you think YO! Sushi was so successful? Because, in 1997, it was so outrageously different to anything else at the time. It had robots and speaking call buttons and conveyor belts and it got people’s attention. I suppose sushi’s cool and healthy and our prices were good value too. But what really made it work was that it was so new.
Did you visit Japan a lot before you launched it? No. I went once before I started researching YO! Sushi and four times while researching it. Since then I’ve only been back a couple of times.
Are you going to launch YO! Sushi in Japan? There’s been a lot of talk about it. It’s like taking coals to Newcastle. It’s very famous over there – it was on the news when it first opened. I think they’re rather proud of it.
Is the food industry particularly difficult to enter into, from a business point of view? I knew absolutely nothing about food at all when I opened YO! Sushi, which in some ways I think was an advantage. I’ve never seen myself as a conventional restaurateur. Although I’ve sold most of it, I still own some, so I guess I am one. But there’s only one word for restaurant owners in the English language and it covers everything from highfalutin Marco Pierre Whites to hamburger joints, with chain restaurants like YO! Sushi somewhere in the middle.
What kind of restaurant ideas do people pitch at you? The most common is a way to make tea the new coffee – I’d be rich if I had a dirham for every time someone’s suggested that. Lots of people want to put things on conveyor belts. Unoriginal? Yes. Most ideas are more to do with the YO! brand. But I’m intent on just doing five things: the restaurants, the hotels, YO! Home – my radical take on residential property – YO! Zone the spa and one more as yet unannounced venture, as well as radio and publishing under YO! How.
The strangest idea you’ve heard? Someone who wanted to do funerals. They had it all worked out. They knew what it would be called – YO! Below, Fair YO! Well, or YO! You’re Dead. Funnily enough, I do think there is profit and opportunity in that idea. Death is the one thing we seem to deny civilisation.
Will you open a YO! Hotel here? I think so, because our investors are based out of Kuwait and travel to Dubai a lot.
Are you planning to launch anything else in Dubai? We’ve talked about doing YO! Zone the spa in Dubai. It would be fantastic – it brings the spas to everybody, not just the highfalutin people. That’s the great thing about YO! Sushi as well – you get rich people sitting next to poor people.
Are you sick of sushi? I absolutely love sushi – it’s the reason I opened YO! Sushi in the first place. I still love it. I’m going to New York this evening and I’ll go to my favourite sushi bar first.
Do you say ‘Yo’ a lot? Yo! No, not really. Sometimes I do stuff and come on stage and say ‘Yo!’ And everybody likes it.
YO! Sushi has branches in Bur Juman (04 359 5479); DIFC (04 3625 470/71), Festival City (04 232 9396) and International City (04 362 5470). Simon Woodruffe will speak at the first Leaders in Abu Dhabi conference on May 25, www.leaderspresents.com