Simon opened YO! Sushi in Poland Street, Soho, on January 22nd 1997 with his life savings of £200,000. Within a week, there was a queue down the block, and the company never looked back.
‘Actually it wasn’t that easy’, says Simon. ‘Over the next five years, in spite of some very successful restaurants, there were some poor ones too, and some very close shaves.’
‘Robin Rowland, who had been my partner from early on, really did the hardest thing – which was to take a small group of restaurants and build them into the organisation of quality sites and operation we have today. That allowed me to go on and look at new projects.’
Mark Norton, the only person other than Andy Warhol to have designed two Rolling Stones album covers, designed the YO! logo, and always said that YO! was destined to become a famous brand.
‘It just happened to be a sushi bar in its first manifestation’.
‘Early YO!s had drinks served by robots, which featured in Microsoft’s Where do you want to go today? campaign – accompanied by David Bowie’s Heroes. The American advertising agency rang up and said, “Would you mind if we shot our next TV commercial using YO!’s name and venue?”… we thought they were joking at first, but soon woke up and carefully hid our Apple Macs (or the equivalent back then). Then, Tim Bevan, from the film producers Working Title, called to say they wanted to shoot a Johnnie English film in YO! Sushi. Some of you may remember that Rowan Atkinson got his tie caught in the conveyor belt.’
Underneath the first YO! Sushi was YO! Below – which famously had self service beer at every table. You could still smoke in bars then, so smoke extracting ash trays were installed – and the government came so close to legalising marijuana that Simon told The Times that he was going to extract all that smoke into special rooms, and charge people to go in there… needless to say that never happened. But The Times did declare “YO! goes to pot.”
Simon Woodroffe and the management of YO! Sushi have, at different times, owned various parts of the business. The company has been bought and sold three times during its expansion, each time successfully for its owners, but Simon and the YO! Co. own a royalty in perpetuity.
If you want to read more about the early days of YO! Sushi, The Book of YO! is available from Amazon.