The Hong Kong Restaurateurs Making Waves Abroad
"The F&B market in Hong Kong is so competitive. In my opinion, it’s the most competitive in the world. A lot of people underestimate the quality and creativity found here,” says Alexis Offe, who founded Meraki Group with his sister Laura. The duo are behind Brazilian-Japanese street food spot Uma Nota in Soho and modern Middle Eastern Bedu in Central's happening Gough Street hub.
“In Hong Kong you need to deliver every single day, because you're only as good as you were yesterday. It definitely gives you that competitive edge,” he says. It’s this Hong Kong grit that the Offes have taken with them to France, where their parents are from, opening Uma Nota in Paris in summer last year.
"I think that because it's so competitive, the concepts here in Hong Kong have a lot more detail. Everything is thought through, from the design to the food menu, to the collaterals, to the packaging, to the music. It's an experience in itself,” he says, which he feels wasn’t the case in Paris until a few years ago. “If you would've told me four years ago to open a restaurant in Paris, I would have said no, because I didn't think the market was ready.” The idea of a “concept” restaurant, with a strong storytelling aspect has made them a leader in Paris – Uma Nota has been nominated best new casual dining concept by French industry awards Les Palmes de la Restauration.
The Offes found a local partner and set up shop in a heritage building in Paris’s 2nd arrondissement. “It's a very up and coming neighbourhood. The building was kind of abandoned, but now the City of Paris is going to revamp the whole building.”
“[Being in a heritage building] is very challenging. There are a lot of things we couldn't do with the façade. There's a lot of things inside the restaurant, like the structure itself, we needed to not touch it. The floor had to be as it was.” Being a two-storey restaurant with a wraparound mezzanine, however, they have the luxury of space, which is always a delight to space-challenged Hong Kong restaurateurs.
“On the one hand you have more space, and rents are lower,” says Rohit Dugar, founder of Young Master, the Hong Kong craft beer brand that has recently opened two taprooms outside of Hong Kong. “But on the other hand," Dugar continues, "you also don't have the density of people, which makes it harder.”
He and his team opened The Guild in Singapore’s vibrant Chinatown in May last year, and after nine months, they’re getting into the swing of things. “In Singapore, fortunately, we’ve had a very strong positive perception,” he says. Part of the success has been to identify a need in the market, he explains: "I think in the Singapore bar scene there are these incredibly high-quality cocktail bars, but I sensed that there was a bit of fatigue among people, that every cocktail bar [was] trying to outdo the other in terms of pure showmanship. I think The Guild represents high quality without any of that superficial nature of things. We wanted to create a solid place that can be around for a long time. I think this is allowing us to find our own space”.
Just before the new year, the Young Master team opened Goon Goon at Upperhills, a hip new development just across the border in Shenzhen. The expansion into Mainland China has been a little different. Dugar says, “We found that it's a very underserved place. Overall it's a very young city, and the demographic is generally young. The tech industry is big, the design industry is big, so we wanted to do something. The setting is very different from say The Guild, or anything we've done in Hong Kong. It's not a neighbourhood setting, it's brand new development.”
With a goal of being the leader in the Asian craft beer scene, Young Masters’ expansion is deliberate. “Within the resources that we have, we decided to select a few cities that we wanted to be present [in]. We thought we need one place in Southeast Asia, and something in Mainland China. We wanted to not just send some beer to a distributor. We wanted to do it properly and have our own kind of way of presenting, for the full experience.” The Asian craft beer scene is still nascent, but in Shenzhen it’s close to non-existent. Still, Dugar says they’re in it for the long haul. “In Shenzhen, the focus for us for the foreseeable future is sticking to our guns, continuing to do what we believe in, while educating the market by playing a role in that process [of introducing craft beer to the locals]. It's happening. It's an organic process which will take time.” In fact, he says a few Shenzhen hotels have just placed orders, simply because a representative of the hotel happened been introduced to the beer by visiting Goon Goon.
See also:See The Artsy Side Of Shenzhen
Perhaps a more obvious way of exploiting Hong Kong’s strengths is exporting Cantonese food into overseas markets, so it's little surprise that more than one Hong Kong restaurateur has attempted it. Mott 32 is in Vancouver, and more recently, Las Vegas; Duddell’s opened in London; and Canton Disco has brought a slice of Hong Kong to Shanghai.
"We were actually the first luxury Chinese restaurant brand to be franchised from the East to the West,” says Malcolm Wood, managing and culinary director of Maximal Concepts, the group behind Mott 32. Although there’s a lot in common between the restaurants, each is unique and created with the local market in mind. “There are no two identical Mott 32s anywhere,”says Wood. “That’s because it is equally important for each international outlet to be able to localise and adapt to its environment. A 'glocalised expansion' of the concept, if you will.”
Dugar’s outlets even within Hong Kong have been diverse in concept. He explains, "It's in our DNA to be bespoke. We do the same thing with beer. Every beer we make is designed from scratch and there's kind of that underlying way of thinking, and that's how we've looked at all our restaurants as well.”
Syed Asim Hussain of Black Sheep Restaurants, who have brought Canton Disco to Shanghai, concurs: "Even going into a new neighbourhood in Hong Kong for us presents its own unique set of differences, so with the Shanghai opening we were really sailing into unchartered waters.” The group has emerged in recent years as a leader of the “concept” restaurant genre in Hong Kong, and for this first Shanghai outpost, Christopher Mark of Black Sheep Restaurants says it’s "a celebration of the disco era”. “We took it back to the very beginning with a subtle nod to Studio 54 and Ian Schrager [the designer for Edition Hotels, in which Canton Disco is situated]. We always try to tell a story that is unique to the space and with this project we wanted to link it back to the Edition brand”.
See also:A Chat With The Founders Of Black Sheep Restaurants
Mark says they were hesitant to work abroad. “We have had a very singular focus on Hong Kong. If anything we have been very wary of expanding outside of Hong Kong,” but the opportunity came up when they were invited by the Edition team and Jason Atherton, who has been the culinary collaborator for several Edition hotels worldwide. Hussain adds, "We have had a lot of opportunities, we are lucky, the phone rings almost every day these days, but for us it is about telling stories our way so there are a lot of pieces that need to align before we pursue opportunities inside and outside of Hong Kong.”
Offe thinks he’ll take the Uma Nota brand much further, both in terms of concept and location. “Asia is definitely very interesting for us – places like Singapore and Indonesia are very interesting. And then you have obviously London, or maybe San Francisco.” He also sees Uma Nota being a beach club or even a hotel. “We're still underdogs for sure,” he’s quick to add, “[but] we think there’s a bright future for it. Definitely. We're very ambitious with it.”