Yo! Sushi's US expansion plan rolling on

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The Independent Online

Yo! Sushi, the British conveyor-belt sushi group, is close to striking a deal that will see it open its first outlet in America.

The business, founded by the former Dragon's Den star Simon Woodroffe in 1997, currently has 24 outlets in the UK. But its chief executive, Robin Rowland, is planning a major push in which it will dramatically increase the number of its restaurants, both here and overseas.

Although Yo! Sushi is the owner of the UK outlets - which include standalone restaurants, counters in shopping centres and concessions in department stores such as Harvey Nichols - it plans to expand overseas through the use of franchises.

"America has been the holy grail for us for ages," said Mr Rowland. "We have 200 applications a year from potential franchisees, a third of which come from the US.

"There's no one [franchise partner] who could do the whole of America, so we're probably looking at [doing deals with] around five partners."

The cities the group is considering include Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, Boston, Washington DC, Atlanta and then, finally, New York.

"I will be bitterly disappointed if we haven't opened our first one in the US by the end of next year," added Mr Rowland, who believes the group could support up to 250 US branches.

Yo! Sushi also plans to expand in Europe and the Middle East. "If we can find two or three more partners overseas, which I think is imminently feasible, we could be opening in Moscow and Madrid in the next couple of years," said Mr Rowland.

The group already has two franchises in Paris and will have 10 outlets in the Middle East by the end of 2007. Mr Rowland is targeting around 60 new UK sites.

The private equity firm Primary Capital acquired a 60 per cent stake in Yo! Sushi in 2003 from Mr Woodroffe. The £10m deal left Mr Woodroffe with a 22 per cent holding, but most expect him to sell out to fund other ventures he is involved with.

Primary has recently hired Jamieson Corporate Finance to review Yo! Sushi's options. A sale is possible, but Mr Rowland insisted that Primary was in no hurry to exit.