Restaurants hit by soaring Hong Kong rents

The streetscape is changing as restaurants are being replaced by jewellers and clothes shops

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2012, 4:19am

A word to the wise: restaurant operators had better own their properties or they risk being at the mercy of their landlord.

Naozen, a well-known Japanese eatery in Central that is partly owned by chef Naoyuki Sato, closed last Saturday after the landlord decided to lease the property to a telecommunications company at a monthly rent of about HK$1 million.

That is three times the rent Sato was paying of about HK$300,000 a month. So, he had no choice but to close the premises he co-founded nearly a decade ago.

Last week, almost all the who's who in the Japanese community in Hong Kong went there for a last meal and to bid farewell to Sato.

Among them were senior executives of Japanese brokerage Nomura and camera-maker Nikon as well as Hong Kong movie stars.

As a chef in Tokyo, Sato started his career at the prestigious Nadaman group of restaurants preparing traditional dishes for Japanese prime ministers, politicians, business leaders and celebrities.

He arrived in Hong Kong in 1994 when the company sent him to be the executive chef at Nadaman's in the Kowloon Shangri-La hotel. But when his employer wanted to send him back to Japan in 2003, he opted to quit and set up shop under his own name with some partners.

When Hong Kong's economy was in the doldrums in 2003 after the outbreak of the Sars virus, it turned out to be the right time to get established, given that rents were low.

Over the past nine years, the restaurant has survived many downturns, including the global financial crisis in 2008. It, however, could not cope with the landlord.

Sato told customers he planned to stay in town and open another eatery. He is now looking for premises but finding rents in other areas of the city aren't cheap either.

Similar stories to Sato's are repeated around town as many popular restaurants are being driven out by high rents.

Tai Hei Hing Restaurant is among those that have had to relocate from the street level to an upper floor to pare the rent.

Run by television celebrity chef Vincent Ko Wing-sun, the Cantonese eatery occupied ground-floor space in Causeway Bay in the early 2000s, and was patronised by many local tycoons and business leaders. It was forced to close in 2006 after the landlord doubled the rent. A fashion label now occupies that space.

Two years ago, Master Ko, as he is known to viewers because of his television cooking programme, reopened the restaurant but now it is on the ninth floor of a building in Wan Chai.

The rent is a third of the asking price for his previous location, but Master Ko worries that he may be losing potential new customers without a street-level front.

These days it's so boring when walking along many of our streets and all you can see is one jewellery store and clothing shop after another?