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10 Tips for Creating a Successful Restaurant in Hong Kong


Passion. Resilience. Working with the right people. These are the words that were mentioned again and again during the General Assembly x Sassy HK panel session I chaired last month on how to create a successful restaurant business. It was a rare opportunity to hear not one but three restaurateurs recount their humble beginnings, and offer advice on how to do well in the highly competitive world of F&B.

Whilst there is no singular magic formula that can be applied to ensure that your restaurant or food business will triumph, here are the top 10 tips that were shared over the course of the evening...

General advice

1. You've got to absolutely love and believe in what you do. All the panellists agreed that success in the restaurant industry is contingent upon being passionate about what you do. One must also completely buy into the product they are creating - if you don't believe in your restaurant and idea, it's impossible to convince paying customers to do so.

2. It's never too late to get in the game. Andrew Li, COO at Privé Group, didn't set out to oversee multiple restaurant operations in Hong Kong. Rather, he read a degree in Psychology and worked his way around several hotels in Europe and Asia before being recruited to his current position. 

3. That being said, hands on experience is absolutely vital. You've got to get your hands dirty! There's no shortcut to acquiring the skills you need to become a successful restaurateur, and the learning process is far from glamorous. Asim Hussain, co-founder of Black Sheep Restaurants, recounted some of his earlier jobs in the food and beverage industry: dishwasher; toilet cleaner; food runner's assistant...

4. Be clear about your vision and what you want your operation to achieve. Make sure you know what you want your restaurant to be, counsels Hussain. "With Black Sheep, we specialise in niche concepts. So Motorino isn't just a pizza joint - it's a Neapolitan pizzeria. And La Vache! isn't just another French brasserie, but focuses on steak frites and serving the best steak frites in town." Having that focus and clarity in your concept is key to creating a quality operation.

5. There are as many good days as mind-numbingly long ones. "Running a restaurant is like surfing," muses Tony Cheng, founder and CEO at Drawing Room Concepts. "There are the waves that hit you hard and make you fall, but all of that is worth it when you catch that perfect wave." Persevering through the hard days is part and parcel of leading and running a good food business.

Tips specific to Hong Kong (but most likely applicable elsewhere too!)

6. Know your market. Hong Kong boasts one of the highest per capita concentrations of restaurants and cafés in the world, with more than 11,000 dining outlets competing against you for business. HK diners are also fairly vocal with their opinions (Exhibit A: OpenRice), so do your research on what people like and dislike about service, décor, and which cuisines are trending at the moment.  

7. It's all about location, though this is easier said than done! The location must match the intended patrons, even if it's not necessarily in the most central of areas. Privé Group's portfolio includes restaurants and nightclubs with different client profiles, hence Li's strategy must adapt to match each concept. "It's important to think about 24/7 taxi access when opening a club. With a restaurant, this is less important; it's more about if someone would want to make the journey."

8. Choose the right property and landlord. This one is a biggie for Hong Kong, as the city is renowned for its tough landlords and their unfavourable lease terms. "The best locations are going to cost you," says Hussain, "but always, always, negotiate a longer lease." Five years is the minimum term he will sign for Black Sheep Restaurants, and it should ideally be longer.

9. Be smart about your staff. The panel all touched on how tough it was to source and retain top talent in Hong Kong, as there are restaurants aplenty and few quality staffers to be found. Cheng is incredibly proud to still be working with several of his core team from their first operation, and reflects that luck played a huge part in getting it right the first time. However, constantly checking in on staff at all levels is also extremely important, so you are in touch with the people that are on the floor and know how they are feeling. 

10. Don't get complacent. Perhaps because they are spoilt for choice, Hong Kong diners are an extremely fickle lot. It is very common to see a restaurant or bar open to much fanfare but lose momentum swiftly when they are no longer the new kids on the block. The panel advised to strategise from Day One about the inevitable decline, and do not be tempted to rest on your laurels. Play the long game on this one, and your restaurant will hopefully stand the test of time.

All images courtesy of Black Sheep Restaurants. Valerie is grateful to General Assembly Hong Kong for the kind invitation to moderate.

P.S. Has the above piqued your interest in starting a food business? Head over to Foodie HK for their series on F&B startups for more inspiration.

Weekly Chow


The Weekly Chow is back in a brand new Friday slot! To make up for my holiday from the digital world, I've got a great series of posts lined up in the coming weeks, as well as few changes and updates to the site. For now, here are my top reads over the past week - from how to write like a terrible but popular food blogger (this one's NSFW, but worth the laugh I promise) to the grains you could try next to stay ahead of the food trend curve. Enjoy - and cheers to the weekend!

How not to make a restaurant reservation. Hint: Name-dropping ain't cool. (British GQ)

Hey, quinoa - teff, sorghum and millet are the up and coming gluten-free grains on the block. (FWx)

Have we moved on from the burger boom? (Guardian)

From savoury to barrel-aged, here are 7 of London's must-try cocktails. (Condé Nast Traveler)

A hilarious guide on how to write like a terrible but popular food blogger: Part 1 and Part 2. (FYN)

Re-create Hollywood hotspot's The Ivy Gimlet for your next party. (Cupcakes and Cashmere)

Oh sugar! When it comes to desserts, sugar is so much more than a sweetener. (Eater)

Image courtesy of Village East