Australian Jackie Yun and her Danish business partner John Christensen together built the Wagas restaurant empire, which includes Bistrow, Baker & Spice and CIRKA. Yun, whose entrepreneurial grandfather left Guangzhou for New Guinea in the 1800s, tells Crystyl Mo about creating one of Shanghai’s most recognised and successful casual Western dining brands
How did you start working on the Wagas concept?
I was working at Kabb in 2001 and was looking to do my own restaurant. I met John by chance and he offered me a job. The style of Wagas has evolved a lot – I almost didn’t take the job because of the cafeteria-style interior it was originally. Before and after my interview with John, I walked the neighbourhood: Plaza 66 and Isetan. It had a similar feel to my brother’s café in Sydney, where I worked for a short time. It had potential. I discussed with John that if we liked each other, I didn’t want to be just an employee, I wanted to be a business partner. It has turned our exceptionally. There aren’t many people like John; I’m very lucky.
How did Wagas expand so successfully?
Right timing, hard work, wrong and right decisions, cost control and team work. Just like Blue Frog and Element Fresh, we were lucky to enter the market when competetion was minimal and the cost of running a business was considerably lower. Today’s market is vastly different to even three years ago. John and I are the only partners in the business, we really try to take care of every aspect of our business.
How much have your prices gone up?
In 2002, a regular coffee was 13RMB, today it’s 18RMB. A 38RMB sandwich is now 48RMB. Our coffee prices are in line with the main coffee brands like Starbucks and Costa Coffee. The price of global green beans has increased dramatically, and we just have to eat that cost.
Your prices seem high compared to local restaurants...
Most of our locations are premium A-grade streetfront spaces. Also, local restaurants may use different produce. It’s imported parma ham vs local pork mince; Sunkist oranges vs sugar-loaded orange concentrate. It is hard to make comparisons on this level. The costs of everything in Shanghai (and China as a whole) have increased. At the end of the day, it is a business. It is so important for us to provide quality and value in our products and services. Back in the day, profit margins were higher, but the market has changed a lot.
How did Baker & Spice start?
Wagas became known for its sandwiches, and we needed to improve our bread quality. Our volumes made it viable to start a bakery. We didn’t plan to expand B&S so quickly, but when The Shanghai Centre offer you a space, you say, ‘absolutely, thank you!’
What is Craig Willis’s role?
Craig (with John) owns La Strada and Mr Willis. At Wagas, he continues to help, advise and adjust food/recipes. After he left M on the Bund, he called me one day from Sydney, bored to bits. I said: why don’t you come and work with us? I was about to open a third Wagas store; carrot cakes and turkey sandwiches varied in the two stores, and it was doing my head in. I needed help and I knew Craig could do it. He took over management of all kitchen/food management. Craig is one of the most respected people in our company. I am so proud of him and his achievements.The guy is a workhorse with a big big heart.
How come we rarely see you or John in the press?
It’s just not our style. I prefer to stay as low-key as possible. John flat-out refuses and says it’s my job! In our opinion, it is our colleagues and our team that deserve any credit or press.
What’s in the future?
The future as in June/July 2011? The Wagas in the Hong Kong New World Tower will relocate across the street to Central Plaza. It’s a bigger space with a huge fa?ade facing Xintiandi. Our Wujiang Lu store will also relocate a few rooms down to a first plus second floor space. Wagas number 20 will open at Park Place near the PuLi Hotel; number 21 will open at Joy City; and number 22 will open at Times Square. Lastly, Baker & Spice will open in the exclusive Kerry Parkside in Pudong. Then a nice holiday, I hope.