Cafe the Flipp side of success

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 April, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 April, 1993, 12:00am

WITH the former general manager of Oliver's and the owner of a chain of herbal tea shops at the helm, Cafe Flipp started out with the ingredients for success.

Add the ideas of their third partner, an architect, and you have an unbeatable team.

And in the four weeks since its opening in Lan Kwai Fong, this has proved true, with Cafe Flipp enjoying a steady patronage.

Cafe Flipp is the brainchild of Mr Christopher Law, an architect with the Oval Partnership, the former general manager of the Oliver's group, Ms Annabel Zimmern, and Mr Sherman Tang who, who apart from property interests, runs the Wing Hong Chan chain of herbal tea shops.

But there was another vital factor to this successful liaison. The three were friends with a common goal - they wanted to open a restaurant where they, personally, would enjoy eating.

The three hunted for a location and decided that a site, which had previously been a furniture shop, on the ground floor of the California Entertainment Building was the place.

''It had the wide frontage and high ceilings which gave the place the warehouse feel we wanted for Cafe Flipp,'' said Mr Tang who spent 15 years in New York and Los Angeles, before returning to live in Hongkong.

Negotiations for the 4,000-square-feet site began with the partners beating off a challenge from rival bidders by proposing a concept for a restaurant which appealed to landlord Mr Allan Zeman, who already has five similar tenants in the building.

''If anything, we modelled Flipp on Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California,'' said Mr Tang.

''But the cuisine is neither strictly Californian nor French,'' he added.

''It's hard to find an identity for a new restaurant in Hongkong unless it has a theme, like Dan Ryan's.

''We settled on eclectic New World cuisine, rather than exclusively French, English, Italian or Australian.'' The plans were submitted to the landlord and the deal was done - for rent of ''under $200,000 a month''.

Electrical and mechanical installations proved the next hurdle. Being an old building, the site needed alterations to comply with regulations.

''It's a waiting game,'' said Mr Tang.

''After submitting our plans, it took three months for approval to come through.'' With five restaurants in one building, the air-conditioning unit was already working to capacity.

A sixth restaurant involved putting extra plant on the roof, with chiller pipes leading to Cafe Flipp on the ground floor.

''That was very expensive,'' admitted Mr Tang.

Finally, with the technical hitches ironed out, the three began to work out ''what went where'' and tenders were invited from contractors, all of whom were already known to the three partners.

''Annabel was responsible for the hardware, down to the knives and forks,'' said Mr Tang.

''She designed the menus, working closely with our chef, Darren Wightman, who is from Australia.'' The overall look of the interior is still very stark but Mr Tang said the finishing touches would be added as the weeks went by.

Overheads mean few restaurants can afford to wait until decorative perfection has been achieved before opening for business.

Along one wall is a spectacular mural - completed last week - by British artist Jeremy Bookle, who worked into the night when the cafe was empty.

The owners are pleased with the response, with their reputation spreading by word of mouth.

''We have figured on 18 months to pay ourselves back,'' said Mr Tang.

''In Hongkong, there is this idea if you don't recover your investment in a year, you've failed. But that's unrealistic.

''Even 18 months is optimistic, but realistic.'' Owner involvement has proved the key to the venture's success. Mr Tang is on hand at all times to oversee the nine kitchen and 14 service staff who work under French general manager Mr Eric Piras from Bordeaux.

Cafe Flipp is the first of many projects for Epicureanis Co, although Mr Tang said that it would not develop into a chain.

''It's a one-off,'' he said.

''It's the kind of place I like, with a serious restaurant upstairs, and casual dining with a good bar downstairs.'' And the name? ''Well, I wanted something light-hearted and flippant,'' said Mr Tang.

''Annabel wanted something like Cafe Lipp in Paris.

''So, there you have it - Cafe Flipp.''