Luke Clayton: The endless pursuit of maximizing guest satisfaction
From running Michelin powerhouses, operating restaurants sustainably to taking Japanese cuisine to Asia, the CEO of Wa Creations will never compromise
Luke Clayton has very good advice for anyone wanting to be a restaurateur like him.
“It’s not for the faint-hearted,” says Wa Creations CEO in an exclusive interview with TableCheck before adding, “If you don't have the passion for it, it's just going to feel like a job and it's grinding and extremely competitive business.”
Since Clayton left his job in finance many years ago to embark on investing in his first restaurant in Hong Kong, it was his passion for Japanese culture that guided him through to every restaurant venture he had.
Operating Japanese high-end restaurants under his company Wa Creations is not an easy breeze. Perfecting guest experience in every restaurant is paramount as most of the restaurants he sets up become Michelin awardees.
What keeps Clayton going is his overall vision.
“We are very much focused on bringing the authentic Japanese dining experience to Asia,” the Australian CEO says.
His company Wa Creations was named after the Japanese social and cultural concept of 'Wa' which means peace and harmony in Japan. Asked how much this philosophy influences how he operates his restaurants, Clayton says:
"The Japanese kanji Wa (和) accurately represents the company and our philosophy. We are focused on authentic Japanese dining experiences, no fusion. Dining at our restaurants should provide a sense of being magically transported back to Japan. In order to achieve this we have set principles and standards in place and we never deviate from them.”
To serve this Wa philosophy and the essence of Japan at his restaurants, Clayton says partnering with great chefs is important.
“We have great partnerships across Japan with some very famous chefs. We also have many chefs that are less well known but also incredibly passionate and gifted chefs."
To maintain the high-quality standard of ingredients in all his restaurants, Clayton says they “don’t cut corners.”
“In Hong Kong, we fly in the ingredients five to six times a week. The ingredients [that] are eaten at lunchtime or dinner, have arrived that day before they're prepped for your meal specifically.
“That's one of the reasons we would focus on locations where we can easily get our ingredients into the city. We basically pay top dollar for the best ingredients, [sourced] through our relationships with our chefs who have got many, many decades of long-lasting and strong relationships in, for example, Toyosu fish market.”
It is far easier to source in Japan, he says, but with COVID-19 adding a layer of complexity, Clayton and his partners work around logistic limitations to be able to continue sourcing high-quality ingredients for their various restaurants in Asia and Japan.
However, they aren’t sacrificing quality for their sustainable approach. Clayton says they are currently working with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to identify and avoid dishes which impact endangered species.
"We strongly believe that this is essential and work hard to ensure our omakase menus are of the highest level whilst simultaneously having as limited an impact on the oceans as possible.
“That's what we're trying to do for all of our locations, regardless of the cuisine. As you can imagine, it's a bit challenging but it's achievable. I hope we can take a leading role in this space and encourage others to do the same.
“Each restaurant is slightly unique and it's a little bit more complex than if you just had one brand. We feel we're getting there. I think it's the right thing to do.
"I think it is the only way forward.”
Overall guest experience – what it takes
Serving great food along with the winning combination of having accomplished chefs is just part and parcel of what makes a restaurant successful explains Clayton.
“The other 50% is the atmosphere, the interaction with chefs, the whole team management, the beverages, the fit-out of the restaurant, everything. You add all those up together and they have a dramatic impact on a guests overall dinning experience.”
One way to make sure that they bring out the authentic experience for their customers is to meticulously train both Japan-based and international staff so that they posses a deep understanding of all aspects of the meal and what they are trying to achieve.
"This knowledge will help them interact with our guests and enhance the overall dining experience and appreciation for what the team is working so hard to achieve," Clayton explains.
The intersection of art, craftsmanship and cuisine
Clayton and the team go over and beyond to make the dining experience also a visual journey for guests.
“We go to great lengths to bring the best of Japan, which obviously is easier done in Japan, but we also try to bring the best of Japan overseas. So when you walk in and sit down in our counters or private rooms, you feel like you're in Japan; you forget that you’re in Macau, Hong Kong or Australia, or wherever.”
Every detail in the restaurant, from the counters to the plates to everything on the wall, has to evoke the essence of Japan. Clayton and his team hand-pick all materials used from key elements such as Japanese "Hinoki" Cypress counters for each handmade plate. When designing the restaurants Clayton works with famous Japan-based design companies and legendary artisans to bring authenticity to each restaurant regardless of location.
“That's a differentiating factor. Obviously, that costs a lot more money to do that but I think it's well worth it.”
One other way they are truly elevating the dining experience is to integrate art into their restaurants.
“We also have long-standing strong relationships with artists throughout Japan. In Sushi Wakon in The Four Seasons in Kyoto, we will rotate through artworks from the Niazawa family who have been creating pottery for 350 years. Throughout the restaurant, you can find stunning works of art that are rotated on a regular basis in collaboration with our Kyoto-based artisan friends."
To round off a perfect dining experience, Wa Creations restaurants also use a Table Management system like TableCheck to run and manage their booking and tables.
“For our team to be able to see [these bookings] immediately, and also the way that restaurant managers and teams can easily manage the bookings due to the software which is very user-friendly. It’s very easy to train up our new members as well and makes it incredibly easy and ensures there are no issues when it comes to bookings.”
Clayton says without a proper table management system (TMS) like TableCheck, mistakes will happen and customer service may suffer.
“One of the most unpleasant things that can happen for a guest is to arrive at a restaurant to find out the staff have made a mistake with their booking and there are no seats available. That's just terrible customer service and you can understand why guests would become upset. Having the right technology to avoid such disasters is paramount.”
Kappo Zuichi in Hong Kong and Sushi Wakon of Four Seasons in Kyoto, Japan are Michelin-starred restaurants that operate under Wa Creations.
The future of Wa Creations
With all elements in place, from the highly skilled chefs, access to highest grade ingredients, exclusive beverage lineup, ambiance, and software systems, Clayton knows it's these factors that help elevate his establishments.
“A lot of customers understand and appreciate that we are going the extra mile and doing our utmost to provide them with wonderful memories when they dine with us," the Wa Creations CEO says.
“If you add all those elements together, as long as the food's amazing, then it's very likely that guests, even with the highest of expectations, will leave feeling like they had a great experience and will be more than happy to come back again and bring their friends.
“The bar is very high these days; people pay a lot of money to dine out. And their expectations are very high, particularly when they come to a restaurant that has an excellent reputation."
And more expansion is on the horizon for Wa Creations.
“We have a diverse footprint in Japan with restaurants in Niseko, Sapporo, Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka and despite the challenges we all face with the pandemic we continue to grow throughout Asia, including Hong Kong and mainland China.
"I am pleased with our expansion and the pipeline of projects for Sushi, Kappo and Teppanyaki projects is very exciting. The key is to always keep in mind that you can not let expansion negatively impact your existing operations in any way whatsoever.
“When things normalize, hopefully, sooner rather than later, we will continue to expand into mainland China, Shanghai, Shenzhen and major cities like that.”
About the Author
Tuesday Gutierrez is TableCheck's Senior Content Manager. She believes in the power of food and the dining experience to connect and build communities. At TableCheck, she explores the inspiring world of hospitality, restaurants, and the people behind them.
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