In the mid-1990s, 4a Streatham Street in central London was arguably the hottest address in British food. By 5pm, a queue would form outside this basement noodle bar, Alan Yau’s first Wagamama, and, remembers head chef, Chi San: “As soon as we opened, the kitchen printers wouldn’t stop.”
Opened in 1992, this minimalist canteen, with its communal seating and democratic pricing, chimed with the coming New Labour era. Flashy material wealth was out, “experiences” were in, says Perry Haydn Taylor, the head of branding agency Big Fish: “Hipsters were off eating in interesting places.”
Did Wagamama feel revolutionary? “One hundred per cent. There was nothing like it,” says San. Pizza Express may have invented modern casual dining, but Wagamama would influence the look and feel of the fast-casual end of that market (literally, a quicker turnover of greater numbers) like few others – one of these being Nando’s, which also made its British debut in 1992.
Inauspiciously opened on 1 April in suburban Ealing, Nando’s had a cooler reception. Its early branches only achieved traction as they began to focus on eat-in dining over the takeaway that had made Nando’s name in its native South Africa. This improvised UK model (fast food-style counter ordering, DIY drinks, cutlery and sauces; but attractive spaces and table service) now looks inspired.
Across the UK and Ireland, Nando’s has grown into a 458-restaurant behemoth that unites grime MCs, young families and the Observer’s restaurant critic, Jay Rayner, in admiration. “It’s straightforward, well done, delicious,” says Rayner, who used Nando’s takeaways to raise household morale during lockdown. “Is it the greatest piri-piri chicken? No. But it’s very, very reliable.”
Wagamama is a similar feature of British life. Yau sold it in 1998, a process that was, he told the Evening Standard, “like seeing your baby brought up by strangers”. Subsequent owners have grown Wagamama to 148 restaurants which serve around 6.5m katsu curries annually.
Casual dining chains are in a chaotic period, typified by the pre-Covid collapse of Jamie’s Italian. But Nando’s and Wagamama seem future-proofed. Last year, Wagamama’s owner, the Restaurant Group, was raising finance to expand the chain, and Nando’s is planning to open 12 restaurants in 2022. Analyst Lumina Intelligence predicts both brands will buck a shrinking market. As they turn 30, how have Wagamama and Nando’s remained so fresh? And how has their influence shaped modern British dining?
At the original Wagamama, the influential architect John Pawson created a clean, minimalist aesthetic still copied today. But this practical canteen space had soul. The open kitchen’s energy, the lighting, its “tactile, ergonomic” chopsticks and placemat menus all combined, says Robbie Bargh, the founder of hospitality consultants Gorgeous Group, to forge a new appreciation of the “connection between a physical space and how it makes you feel. Emotion per-square-foot, that’s what Alan Yau taught me.”
Always the same, always different
This is how chains want their venues to feel, like unique manifestations of a cohesive identity. From costly mosaic facades to contemporary South African art (it owns more than 9,000 pieces), Nando’s is widely observed to have nailed that difficult task.
The fast-casual aesthetic
The attitude to Wagamama’s shared bench seating was, remembers San: “Nobody will go for that.” People were no doubt equally sniffy about collecting their own cutlery at Nando’s. Yet here we are. That paring back of dining to its cost-effective basics inspired a generation of indies where no-bookings, paper menus, communal tables, cutlery in cans and rapid-fire service are the norm.
Early on, Wagamama imported a futuristic pressure-cooker that could make stock in 360-litre batches. “There was a lot of technology,” says San. Today, display monitors (which split timed tasks across kitchen sections) support Wagamama “line chefs”, while at Nando’s, huge programmable Rational ovens cook the chicken before it is grilled. The aim? Simple, controlled food preparation that allows dishes to be assembled quickly, without having to recruit expensive, scarce, classically trained chefs.
Yau’s “genius”, says Bargh, was identifying a product with three components: noodles, toppings, broth. Wagamama and Nando’s can train kitchen staff from scratch. The ideal became, says Haydn Taylor, producing “that quality of food quickly and scalable-y”.
The changing perceptions of east-Asian food in the UK
Largely inspired by the Japanese food available in Paris and led by a British-Chinese team (Yau, San), Wagamama was always a Euro-Asian hybrid. Authenticity and imported ingredients mattered but also moderating dishes for western palates.
Nonetheless, recalls Rayner, the effect was extraordinary. Foodies may have eaten “rare, esoteric” sushi, but “Wagamama presented a different repertoire and Japanese aesthetic – ramen of a sort you probably hadn’t encountered”.
Without it, would ramen bars such as Bone Daddies, Tonkotsu or Shoryu Ramen exist? Probably not. “Wagamama broadened people’s tastes on a national scale,” says David Fox, owner of Manchester’s Tampopo restaurants, whose second best-selling dish is katsu curry. “That’ll be because of Wags.”
Shuko Oda, the chef-founder at London’s Koya, agrees: “Wagamama changed the way people think about Japanese food.”
These days, from the cultural buzz around Korea to demand from Chinese students, the forces shaping British east-Asian food are radically different. Modern, pan-Asian Wagamama operates in the creative slipstream of, says Stefan Chomka, the editor of industry website Big Hospitality, “a new generation of Asian people doing smaller, cooler indie things”.
Yet it still plays a role in familiarising diners with Japanese dishes. “It’s funny,” says Kaori Simpson, owner of Harajuku Kitchen in Edinburgh. “We’ve had teriyaki since we opened but when Wagamama does it, everybody starts liking teriyaki.”
Health and heat
Healthy eating and protein are key food trends. The UK increasingly loves heat and is eating more poultry. All this favours perceived healthier chains where you can eat chilli-mined noodle broths or chicken in peri-peri sauce. You could stuff yourself on chips at Nando’s, but, says Chomka, “I can’t think of another casual dining restaurant that has peas, corn on the cob and rice. It’s pretty different.”
Nando’s launched a supermarket grocery range in 2000, followed, years later, by everyone from Pizza Express to Wahaca. According to NielsenIQ data, Nando’s is now Britain’s fourth largest table sauce brand. “It’s astonishing,” says Daniel Woolfson, food and drink editor at The Grocer.
Wagamama re-entered retail last year with a range of meal kits and stir-fry sauces, profits from which will fund the mental health charity YoungMinds.
“Wagamama will do OK,” says Woolfson. “But that’s less versatile than Nando’s sauces. Never underestimate the power of convenience.”
In 1996, David Chipperfield Architects wanted to “engage the queue as part of the experience” at Wagamama Soho. Today, queueing to eat at restaurants is commonplace, yet still builds anticipation and publicly demonstrates the excitement around hyped venues.
Giving diners control of what and how they eat is seen as essential in modern hospitality: from customising a burger at a McDonald’s self-service screen to friends eating together at a food hall but ordering individual dishes from multiple kitchens.
With its optional heat levels and bottomless drinks, says Chomka, “Nando’s understood this better than many brands”. Even paying upfront is liberating (47% of customers now order and pay on their phones): “Teenagers can eat together but pay separately without worrying about splitting the bill, then leave when they want. Control is with the customer.”
The customer of tomorrow
Wagamama and Nando’s constantly cultivate the next generation of diners. In that regard, says Mowgli owner, Nisha Katona, the restaurant industry owes them: “Those 16-, 17-year-olds could have done anything with their pocket money. No, they put on shoes, went out, behaved at a table. That is our future.”
Last October, Wagamama announced a new 50% plant-based menu, which comes with text gently encouraging us to fight the climate crisis in our dining habits, a clear overture to young, eco-conscious diners.
Such tactics are no doubt among the reasons for Wagamama regularly ranking highly in YouGov’s poll of most popular dining brands among millennials. Nando’s, which also ranks highly in the poll, has the youth vote locked, crucially because of a decade-long love-in with the music world, pop and grime stars in particular (Ed Sheeran and Example’s Nando’s Skank freestyle; creating a halloumi #MERKY burger for Stormzy; onstage shout-outs from Adele).
Some fans are starting their own food businesses. In 2011’s Tinie Tempah: My Story So Far, the MC recalls eating at Nando’s and thinking: “Whoa, I’m moving up in the world.” In February, he opened the fried chicken delivery brand Raps with the YouTube chef Big Has.
The ‘black card’
A marketing masterstroke also known as the High Five card and supposedly given to celeb fans, entitling them to free Nando’s for a year. (The official Nando’s line is that “no one who’s requested a card, no matter how politely, has ever received one”.) This year, Pizza Express has started awarding “bling rings” to notable musicians and avid, randomly selected users of its loyalty app, entitling them to free pizza.
Social media 101
Nando’s UK social media (Twitter, 1.2m followers, Instagram, 401,000; numbers that dwarf Wagamama’s) is in its tone – jokey, knowing – a masterclass in millennial engagement and shareable content. Music takeovers for International Women’s Day, silly tweets about halloumi sticks or gravy mayo, reworks of memes or TikTok recipes for pasta dishes using Nando’s hot sauces, mingle easily with student campaigns around GCSEs or Booth Truths, a roundtable discussion covering everything from mental health to entrepreneurship, with panellists including rapper Ms Banks, footballer Rio Ferdinand, YouTuber Chunkz and comedian Kae Kurd.
“They know their brand, their target 16-25 market and what they’re interested in, inside out,” says Jules Pearson, vice-president of food and beverage creative development at Ennismore hotels. “It feels authentic, not like they’re scrambling to get viral content or sales.”
On issues of equality, Nando’s has, in South African TV adverts or posters distributed in Washington DC prior to Trump’s inauguration, repeatedly taken progressive stances. Those posters stated: “Nando’s … is an Immigrant EMPLOYING, Gay LOVING, Muslim RESPECTING, Racism OPPOSING, Equal PAYING, Multi CULTURAL chicken restaurant where #everyoneiswelcome.”
Yes, this is marketing. In a 2019 interview at Harvard Business School, cofounder Robert Brozin talked of “intellectual controversy” being part of Nando’s “brand personality” – its irreverence and slogans have, at times, attracted criticism. But forged in post-apartheid South Africa, Brozin insists “a culture of diversity” is core at Nando’s.
Scroll back through years of Nando’s UK ads and online content and the prominence of black and brown faces is striking. It has taken practical steps on inclusivity too, opening 77 halal branches in Britain. Nando’s takes a “neighbourhood” approach to expansion, says Chomka, driven by local demographics: “It’s built from the ground up where most brands feel built from the boardroom out.”
If the clientele in Nando’s restaurants is modern, multiracial Britain made manifest, it could be because it engages its audience in a genuine, holistic way.
“Nando’s does an effective job,” says Mursal Saiq, co-owner of the halal London barbecue restaurant, Cue Point. “It doesn’t market [halal] all over but enough that the Muslim community is aware. That’s the integrated environment one wants. However, they should have halal options at all branches, it seems almost paradoxical not to.”