When Bahraini national Zakarya Alaalam and his Swedish wife Nazli Khorshidi decided to leave their training careers behind to venture into the restaurant business, all they had in their business plan was their passion for international cuisines having travelled across the world with exposure to global cultures. They were new to the food service business and the intricacies of setting up and running a company.
A common love for far-eastern cuisine and the city of Dubai prompted them to explore the market opportunity for an Asian street food concept. They picked their favourite Asian cuisine – the noodles – for their first venture, the Wokyo Noodle Bar at in Jumeirah Lakes Towers in Dubai.
Zakarya, who heads the operations at Wokyo Noodle Bar, recalls his entrepreneurial journey since 2009 until he opened Wokyo in 2013. He credits his survival in a competitive Dubai market to timely advice and guidance from his Sweden-based investors and chef friends who helped him make critical decisions in the initial stages of his business.
“We took our time to learn the F&B business from scratch, because none of us had prior experience in food service. It took us over 5 years from conceptualization to execution, and we needed about 7-8 months to customize different flavors for Dubai’s cosmopolitan diners. Learning different aspects of the business from experts before launching the restaurant was worth the time and effort because it helped us avoid the mistakes new entrepreneurs make when they enter the industry, and it also prepared us for our new roles,” points our Zakarya.
The entrepreneur duo considered several global cuisines and restaurant formats before arriving at a decision. “Our initial plans included every concept we liked, such as the Swedish café and several other Asian concepts, most of which were already available in Dubai at some of its finest restaurants. What Dubai lacked was a place that offered the street food vibe we love and what international travellers are so familiar with in the cities of Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong. The thought of how we could introduce a simple Asian street food cuisine in a casual environment led to the idea of Wokyo,” says Zakarya.
“The objective was to keep the menu as simple as possible, focusing on one main dish with options for flavours. We also wanted to offer the street food experience where you pay for your food first and watch it being cooked before your eyes, and before you know it, the sizzling dish is served in a bowl, and noodles fit the bill,” adds Zakarya.
Once the concept was finalized, Zakarya opted for a 1200 sqft space offered by JLT, although the Wokyo format needed just a little over 500 sqft. Much of the additional space has been utilized for seating. At full capacity, Wokyo can accommodate up to 50 diners.
“Because we were offering only one dish, we needed a location that would give us a high-volume business. JLT was a fast growing free zone at the time, and we were confident in Dubai’s growth story. It made sense to us to start in a fast developing residential and commercial area and grow with it,” says Zakarya.
The Japanese inspiration
The brand name Wokyo is a portmanteau of ‘Wok’ and ‘Tokyo,’ clearly inspired from the Wok cooking technique and the city of Tokyo. A first impression of the Wokyo Noodle Bar at JLT, everything from it layout, décor, and signage, screams Tokyo street vibe. The seating layout gives the outdoor dining experience, both inside and outside the restaurant, similar to street food stalls in Japan.
“Our design objective was to achieve simplicity and create a casual atmosphere. It’s common in Japan to design spaces with themes of earth, nature, and sky. We’ve incorporated these design principles with our wooden interiors and magenta colors, inspired by the cherry blossoms and neon lights of Japan,” says Zakarya.
The highlight of Wokyo is its live cooking station, where chefs use the Japanese Wok and ladle to prepare dishes. The live cooking station is visible to passers-by to attract them into the restaurant.
“We’ve blended the indoor and outdoor environments to offer the same experience of sitting outdoors and having street food, beside and live cooking station and watching people walking by. The theatre and experience of watching the selection of ingredients and food preparation before their eyes gives customers the reassurance that their food is fresh and its preparation is hygienic. Every element has been included to complement the wok cooking, which is the centre of attention. It represents our brand promise of transparency and honesty,” says Zakarya.
A fusion of Far-Eastern noodle traditions
A look at the menu reveals that Wokyo’s cuisine is not strictly Japanese; it offers a fusion of noodle dishes with Far East, South Asia, and Western influences, along with a variety of sauce options for unique flavours.
“We are clear about what we offer – a fusion of simple Asian street noodles. We don’t claim or intend to offer authentic cuisine. We want a Japanese, Korean, or Chinese customer, equally, to feel at home when they visit Wokyo. Any other international diner at Wokyo, whether familiar or unfamiliar with Far-Eastern cuisine, should be able to appreciate and feel the vibe of Far-Eastern cities, cultures, and cuisines. It helps that Noodles, itself, has become a global cuisine which appeals to every culture, and modern Japanese casual dining follows this trend. We offer the right amount of menu customization necessary to give our customers familiarity with their local cuisines and at the same time we ensure that we do not mislead them with a promise of authenticity,” explains Zakarya.
Noodle dishes on Wokyo’s menu are ordered in a three-step selection process involving a sauce, base, and protein. Payment is made in advance at the cash counter before the food is prepared. The first step involves the selection of flavours from 8 sauces presented at the counter; these include popular sauces from Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Seoul, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Singapore. The base options include Singaporean egg noodles, Japanese Udon and Soba noodles, Korean Japchae or glass noodles, Thai rice stick noodles; steamed rice; or only greens. While all dishes come with complimentary carrots, spring onion, and white cabbage, protein options include chicken, beef, prawn, tofu, and veggies such as broccoli, baby corn, and bean sprout.
“Our menu offers a variety of noodles and sauces associated with different cultures and cooking traditions; it also acknowledges the modern cuisines of the Far East. The most important step is the selection of flavours, because that’s where customers are headed when they come to Wokyo. People spend time deciding whether to have Chinese, Thai, Korean, or Japanese food and not whether they should have protein or carbs. Our staff takes them on that journey of exploration of the Far East noodle cuisine and the origin of flavours when they select their sauces and give them recommendations. That’s why we take special care to prepare all our sauces in-house fresh every day and devote the most amount of our time getting it right and consistent,” says Zakarya.
Wokyo has seen increasing popularity among office staff in JLT and operates at full capacity at lunch and dinner time. The average spend per customer ranges from AED 50–60 for a noodle dish, sides, and drink. Zakary attributes the rise in popularity to the menu personalization.
“While offering a simple menu, it’s important to offer the option to personalize dishes. Customers like the freedom to choose their portions, ingredients, sauces, and then pay for just what they want. Our customers in Dubai appreciate the choice we give them. They’re used to such options in places like Subway, but are enjoying them for the first time with Asian cuisine,” says Zakarya.
Staying relevant and profitable
Zakarya emphasizes that he needs to run a tight ship to stay competitive, which means it’s crucial to understand the necessity and cost of each item procured, and monitor wastage.
“We work on improving speed and consistency in delivery without affecting the quality of food. Every work process is broken down, analysed, and built back up for efficiency. It takes two minutes from the point of order to the cup for a single cup of noodles. During busy times, preparation time can vary from 2 to 10 minutes, but we’ve streamlined the process so that there’s no wastage of ingredients or time. To maintain consistency in quality, I need to be hands-on manager to motivate and train my employees to get the best out of them,” says Zakarya.
Hiring was one of Zakarya’s biggest challenges initially, particularly finding people familiar with different cuisines and cultures, strict hygiene standards, and confidence to work in an open kitchen.
“Recruiting Japanese chefs was my first preference, but language constraints and lack of interest from them to relocate to the UAE from Japan made it difficult. So we hired local talent in the UAE. My background in the service and training industry helps me motivate and educate my employees on customer service, communication, Far-eastern traditions of gestures, greetings, eye-contact, courtesy, and so on,” says Zakarya.
Zakarya is ready for Wokyo’s expansion, preferring to open a couple of additional locations before seeking franchising opportunities. His advice to entrepreneurs is to seek expert guidance and never stop learning if they wish to stay in business.
“The first attempt is the most difficult. It took us two years to break even, but now we have an optimized business model and expertise to replicate it and achieve profitability within the first year. New entrepreneurs should realise that passion alone is not enough to succeed. The question they should ask themselves is whether they can convert their passion into a business plan and then learn to improve on that plan,” says Zakarya.