A story about our collaboration with YO!’s People Team and how heroes exist in hospitality, too.
Some time ago, a little over a year in fact, I sat down with my friend and business colleague, Qasim, at our local Starbucks. Neely There had been a part of Wow Group of Companies for a few short months now, and Qasim (CEO of Wow) was explaining the importance of direction, in his usual logical manner. According to him, the clearer the image of the end goal, the sharper the ultimate aim – something that I as a creative-head, need to be reminded of.
Later that day, I cosied up on a bean bag in the corner of our office and started doodling. I thought about the hospitality brands that I’d one day like to be working with; and then questioned whether an inexperienced businessperson like me would ever get the chance.
Despite the niggling voices in my head, those that were telling me that I wasn’t professional, credible, or “businessy” enough, I wrote a list. I started off reluctantly, but by the end of the hour, I had handwritten the names of 100 hospitality brands that I’d already researched and gotten to know well. The challenge was, getting myself to believe that my writing was good enough.
The only way to survive as somebody who writes for a living is to remain positive, optimistic (but not unrealistically so), and believe in things like The Law of Attraction. In my case, this theory really did work; because as soon as I’d subconsciously started “looking for” the right hospitality clients for myself, the universe somehow provided. I honestly can’t describe it any other way.
With yet another nudge from Qasim, I decided to write a lengthy and very heartfelt article about my experience as a waitress at Turtle Bay. It was written as an “ode” to the incredible industry of hospitality; how FOH service made me learn so much, and totally set me up for business. You can read it in full here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/unlikely-business-lessons-from-5-ft-something-waitress-neely-khan/
The article, “Unlikely Business Lessons from a 5 ft. Something Waitress” ended up being my “best performing” LinkedIn article to date. It seemed that a number of professionals were drawn to the authenticity of it (which was super humbling).
Amongst all the wonderful messages I received about the article, one was from a member of the People Department at YO! Sushi. She complimented my writing and said that she’d like to meet me. Two weeks later, her and I were discussing YO!’s manager-in-training courses over tuna sashimi and chicken katsu. The chicken katsu by the way, remains my favourite dish at YO!
For those of you who need a little context, YO! is one of the most innovative casual dining brands (predominantly in the UK, but with nearly 100 restaurants worldwide). Contrary to popular belief, YO!’s restaurants are more than just “sushi joints”. They’re in fact, a hubbub of all things cool, colourful and culinary amazing; the brand itself is one of the few that was not majorly affected by the frightening Casual Dining Crunch, which speaks volumes about its growing success.
Founded by Simon Woodroffe and now, commendably lead by CEO Richard Hodgson, YO! serves “shinsen” (fresh) Japanese street food and sushi on moving conveyor belts that we’ve grown to know and love them for.
However, the brand goes far beyond the vibrant restaurants that we’re used to seeing on highstreets, at airports and indoor shopping malls. Over the last two decades, YO! has launched their popular Sushi Schools, kiosks at Tesco supermarkets, and most recently YO! Kitchen, an alternative dining experience for YO! fans that offers table service and an exquisite Japanese menu.
As a hospitality writer and somebody who has worked in the casual dining sector for many years, my excitement when YO!’s People Department contacted me catapulted through the roof. Though meeting the team and getting to know the brand personally in no way felt intimidating, nor uncomfortable. In fact, when I postponed my first meeting with the HR Director, Alyson Hancock, due to it clashing with my daughter’s nativity performance, she was more than understanding – I later learned that Alyson was simply warm and empathetic by nature, something that I assumed would be a rarity in the grown-up business world.
The success of a restaurant business fundamentally relies
on two things: the quality of food and the quality of service. Whilst it’s easy
for restaurant brands to portray themselves as hospitable in front of guests or
“on stage”, so to speak; the real test is getting to know how they operate
As we’re all aware, hospitality is one of the most physically and emotionally demanding industries in the world. One of the reasons that I decided to niche into this sector with my business, is because I feel that it’s a little undervalued here in the UK, when you think about the number of hours hospitality professionals work, and often through public holidays like Christmas and New Year’s.
You see, YO! understands this. Which is why they focus on internal promotions and invest a lot of time and money into personal and career development for their employees. Having worked with various other restaurant brands, I can honestly say that YO!’s commitment to the success of their team is second-to-none. The very fact that they were willing to outsource the rewrite of their manager-in-training programme to me (for the sake of quality) was testament to this.
The first, “official” discovery meeting with YO!’s People Department took place in the winter of 2018.
Mathilde, who is Wow Group of Companies’ lead designer had been appointed to work on this project alongside me; and God knows where I would have been without her! I remember the afternoon her and I walked into YO!’s head office, bright-eyed and baby-faced; we were welcomed by nine or ten other team members (along with Alyson) at a large table, all of whom looked incredibly friendly and ready to get started.
If you’ve worked with a restaurant company before, you’ll know that their training documents and programmes are unfortunately, not the most exciting. This is mainly due to lack of funds, lack of time, or because other tasks and departments have been prioritised. It’s a great shame really, when you consider the ROI for bespoke and high-quality hospitality training.
As an ethical and responsible company, YO! had recognised that their success starts with a healthy and positive workforce. When we first looked at their manager-in-training documents, it was agreed that the brand’s employees deserve more than “just another training manual”. Somehow, we needed to rewrite the entire manager-in-training programme, with all the correct terminology, processes, and industry-specific rules and regulations in mind, whilst still making it engaging and nothing like an actual training guide. So, tackling the brief was certainly no easy feat! But with a lot of brainstorming and teamwork (and copious amounts of coffee!), we decided that the best way to inspire budding managers at YO! was to share stories, from their point on view.
“Stories make the conveyor belt go round” I remember saying (and this actually ended up being a chapter title in the final book). We’d nailed it. The idea itself was inspired. A bespoke document that reads like a story and educates like a book. I knew from the get-go, that this was going to be a ground-breaking project for both YO! and Neely There.
One of the things that YO! is best known for as an employer, is how they encourage team members to simply be themselves and inspire others to do the same. With this in mind, the team and I decided that our new manager-in-training book would not be “rigid” in any way. Instead, it would promote self-learning and flexibility, wherever possible.
We scrapped the idea of a “set timetable”, with the idea that budding managers could approach their training in any order (alongside their trainer), so long as they’d successfully complete it within a period of four weeks. In fact, Mathilde had a wonderful time designing things like blank timetables, blank note sheets, and various other elements for the book that encouraged the soon-to-be-managers to design their own training. They were the ones in-charge, here.
Of course, the details mean everything when it comes to restaurant management training that is compliant with industry standards (basically, I had a huge amount of content to get through). To make life easier for YO!’s trainees and their training managers, we decided to structure the new book into four other “sub-books”.
Each comprehensive Book is packed with sushi puns, Did-You-Knows? (we called them “YO! Knows), Success Stories, a personalised introduction from every department manager, and a cool End of Book Quiz.
The initial research work involved a lot of travelling to various YO! restaurants with my partner-in-crime Marc Pastor (YO!’s then Learning & Development Manager), where we interviewed existing managers and team members to get a really clear idea of what they’d be looking for in the new book. This was also the part where I was learning the ins-and-outs of restaurant management training and absorbing everything like fluffy white rice! If it wasn’t for Marc and all his practical and emotional support, I’m sure that I would have exploded into sushi-shaped smithereens by now.
As soon as I’d wrapped my head around the phenomenal YO! brand and their training, I was ready to do what I (self-admittedly) do best. We now had the perfect title for the new book thanks to YO!’s creative team, and the writing for Grow with YO! had officially begun.
Whilst I’m the author of Grow with YO! I couldn’t possibly take all the credit for it. The book itself is the result of collective efforts, hard work, and the reliance on colleagues and team members, as if they were family.
Of the hundreds of Word Documents that I typed, re-typed, and edited, Marc and all the department managers thoroughly checked them all, before they were finally sent to Mathilde for her to design from scratch.
Between January 2019 and probably this very day, I have communicated with Mathilde nearly every single day. Sometimes with vague design briefs (that only she would understand), sometimes with very last-minute changes, and often, just for moral support. The book itself has come to life thanks to Mathilde’s design expertise; the way in which she has captured YO!’s brand and honoured my writing is a skill that I both envy and am in absolute awe of.
As well as receiving support from my internal team and Marc; the head of this project, Alyson Hancock has become a friend to me over the last year. You can only imagine just how demanding her “day job” at YO! must be (she’s also a mum and a bit of a superwoman); however, no question nor request has ever been to “silly” for her and I’ve thoroughly admired her dedication to this project. To this “cause” actually, because Grow with YO! is far more than just a book.
It’s a collection of stories; a source of guidance, inspiration, and a complete innovation of restaurant management training. I cannot wait to see future success for the entire YO! family; they’ve earned this. Totally.
“RUCC Stars” is what we call them at YO! Thank you to the entire team at YO! for giving Neely There the opportunity to create Grow with YO! and welcoming Mathilde and I into your family.
A special, oeey-gooey mention to:
Sameer Dhiman, for reading the Book of Compliance sixteen million times
Mike Lewis, for creating delicious food ideas that we could write about
The Marketing Team, for all the lovely things you said 😊
Dan Grantham, for the time you said I was your cheapest date, yet
Ben Doyle, for the best thank you email, ever
Karma Gurung, for speaking to me over the phone
Sarai Martinez, for inspiring me with your story
Andy Proctor, for delivering last minute
The Head Office Team, for that day when you kind of babysat my 7-year-old
Richard Hodgson, for bossing such an ace company. Go you.
Jamie and KEP team, for ensuring that we had Grow with YO! in our hands in time for the big launch
Qasim Majid, for believing in me