Moving Forward

Maxim’s Raymond Tong says Hong Kong could be become a world food destination if government supports catering industry personnel

The city will reap long term benefits by making catering careers attractive to the city’s young with proper training programmes, says Maxim’s Group’s Raymond Tong Kwok-kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 April, 2016, 10:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 April, 2016, 4:36pm

A proper system to draw young people into careers in the kitchen will help build Hong Kong’s reputation as a global food paradise, according to Raymond Tong Kwok-kong, chief operating officer of the Maxim’s Group.

The government would make Hong Kong a better place for restaurant operators if it could provide more courses and certification programmes to encourage youngsters to become chefs or restaurant managers, said Tong, who oversees operation for the city’s largest food services group.

“The long working hours and a lack of clear career path has discouraged people from joining the catering industry. Even if we offer a salary much higher than the minimum wage, we find it hard to hire people. We want more young people who are willing to be trained as chefs, kitchen hands, bakers, waiters and waitresses and managers,” he said.

“Many chefs and restaurant managers are very experienced and have done excellent jobs. It would encourage more people to join the industry if there were more certification programmes to help them to gain diplomas or even degrees.”

Maxim’s has been operating in the city for 60 years. Founded by two brothers, it began as a nightclub offering French cuisine in the 1950s, before growing into a chain of over 900 restaurants now offering Chinese, western and Japanese cuisines. It also holds the Starbucks franchise in Hong Kong and runs cake shops and a moon cake business as well as fast food outlets in Hong Kong, the mainland, Vietnam and Cambodia.

It has a staff of 24,000 and is the largest catering employer in the city.

On average, Maxim’s serves 680,000 customers every day. Some of its mainland restaurants are known to be fully booked three months in advance.

“Hong Kong has become a more developed city and many young people have higher education levels nowadays. This has led many youngsters to prefer working in white collar jobs such as banking or the law. It is very difficult for us to recruit and retain talented people,” Tong told the South China Morning Post in an interview at the group’s office in Cheung Sha Wan.

He said the government has already offered some training and certification programmes in recent years and he hoped for more.

“Certification would provide a career path for youngsters in the catering industry and hence encourage more to join the industry. This would also encourage those who have already joined to continue to learn more to improve themselves,” he said.

The Maxim’s Group has a lot of training programmes and awards to encourage staff. It runs different brands and restaurants which also helps staff development since they can shift to different restaurants or roles and learn different skill sets.

This approach of catering to different customers with several brands at different price levels also has the advantage that landlords would also offer places in malls to several different restaurants in the group.

“Overall, we target mainly the mass middle class who want a good meal at a reasonable prices, and this means we can capture a lot of customers,” he said.

Like many businesses in Hong Kong however, restaurant operators have to face the increasing costs of rent, although they find support from Hong Kong’s strong dining-out culture and the custom of holding family celebrations and gatherings in restaurants, which has helped offset rent rises.

At the same time, a slowing economy means people are opting for cheaper food, although since Maxim’s runs both fast-food and high-end outlets, a slower performance in one can be offset by the other.

Taking a broader view of the slowdown and what could be done about it, Tong said the Hong Kong government could do more promotion overseas to boost the city’s position as one of the top world destinations for good food.

“We are a city which does not only have good local cuisine but also has international cuisine, which is why Hong Kong is an international food centre. If more famous overseas chefs know the city as a food paradise, it will attract more tourists to come and will encourage more well-known global restaurants and chefs to open up here. This would help the city’s catering industry to move forward,” he said.

Besides good food and service, Tong said restaurant operators need to be innovative too.

“We always send staff overseas to do research and development to bring in new brands and food to Hong Kong. Many of our customers have all their meals outside the home but they want different food. Only if you can provide more choices to the customers would they come again,” he said.

Business models also need to change with the times, he said. In the old days, a landlord would often have preferred to offer a big space for a single restaurant, but now they prefer to divide shops into smaller sizes to cater for different needs.

Maxims changed one of its big fast food shops in Fortress Hill into three small shops for different brands, which has translated into an increase in the number of customers.

Hong Kong’s faddish consumers also like to try new service ideas. So in some of the group’s Genki Sushi outlets, which offer plates of the Japanese fish cuisine on conveyor belts moving around the restaurant, it now iPad on which customers can input orders themselves while the food would be served on a small model train moving around on the conveyors.

“Customers always want to try some new tastes. We have therefore always needed to bring some new brands, either by creating them ourselves or bringing them in as franchises from overseas,” Tong said.