Adventures in Alcohol

Yanking Jamie Oliver’s chain: Why chef's Hong Kong venture could actually work

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 March, 2014, 8:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 March, 2014, 12:36pm

Does Jamie Oliver have more commercial acumen than it appears under the cheeky-chappy, pukka-tukka persona?

The commonest response I’ve met to the idea of a Jamie’s Italian here is, “He can’t possibly make it work, the numbers don’t add up.”

It turns out they do.

As recently as yesterday, I was minded to say that Jamie is going to have to change his definition of reasonable, if he wants to say that the restaurant will offer good food at reasonable prices.

The idea behind the chain is, according to the publicity bumpf – to “provide a casual dining experience for food lovers that share his appetite for simple, fresh, honest and affordable food, that is high quality and delicious.”

How is it possible to provide good food affordably when Hong Kong rents are astronomical and Italian ingredient prices are likely to be much higher than in Britain, where the goods have travelled far less distance? The chain also uses some British ingredients.

I set out to compare Jamie’s offer with an already existing one operating in Hong Kong, on the basis that if the existing one worked, perhaps Jamie’s could too. I also wanted to confirm my prejudice that Jamie would have to charge a lot more for the same dishes than he does in Britain. That didn’t work.

We don’t yet know how much Jamie will be charging punters in Hong Kong, so I looked at the prices listed online at his Covent Garden restaurant. This is a notoriously expensive part of London, hopefully making for a valid comparison with his restaurant’s planned Causeway Bay location.

For the purposes of comparison I chose Nico’s Spuntino Bar and Restaurant in SoHo, a district also known for its high rents and tough market conditions. The restaurant has been in business for approaching two years and positions itself as a mid-market, casual, family-friendly dining spot. In my opinion it’s good food at its level and offers the affordability that Jamie says he will be offering.

I assumed a couple eating the traditional four courses of antipasto, pasta, main course and dessert. I left wine and service out of the equation due to the exorbitant tax on wine in Britain and also for the sake of simplicity. I also left out special offers and set menus, equally for the sake of simplicity. It wasn’t possible to make an entirely direct comparison as the restaurants don’t sell exactly the same dishes but, nonetheless, I was surprised. The bill for two at Jamie’s Italian Covent Garden came to HK$1,235, at Nico’s, it was HK$1,502.

The difference in price between a four course meal for two in London and in Hong Kong is modest. In other words, it is already possible to offer a similar menu in Hong Kong for not a great deal more than it’s offered at in Britain. Jamie Oliver won’t have to dramatically jack up his prices when he comes to Hong Kong.

But isn’t Jamie promising us something better for the same price? Well, the dishes I chose for our imaginary diners at Nico’s include a 16oz steak and Sicilian red prawns, both high quality and high cost ingredients.

Of course in Britain he should be paying his staff the legal minimum wage of HK$65 to HK$82 an hour, depending on age. Here the statutory minimum wage is HK$30 an hour, representing an enormous saving that could balance out the much higher ingredient costs.

However, Jamie doesn’t have everything pointing in his favour.

At this point we have to re-introduce wine into the equation. Nico’s makes much of its revenue from wine sales and it makes much of them late in the evening. That won’t be as easy for a second floor restaurant in a mall as it is for Nico’s, opening out on to Elgin Street, for at least some of the night.

Then there’s the competition. According to online restaurant guide openrice there are some 1,200 restaurants classifying themselves as Italian in Hong Kong. We can assume few people will choose Pizza Hut or Spaghetti House over Jamie’s Italian, but what about, say, the American-Italian Fat Angelo’s? This spot may have little street cred but it’s reliable and our hypothetical four courses for two comes to HK$1,700. Set meals can make eating here far cheaper. If that doesn’t float your bloat, there are plenty of other options in this price range and lower.

Jamie Oliver may find the competition isn’t coming from mid-market peers and the cheap chains but from the price point above.

You don’t have to add much to your bill to be getting three courses of Italian gastronomy at somewhere like Grissini at the Grand Hyatt in Wan Chai. There Chef Andrea Fraire will make you an appetiser, main course and dessert for HK$750-800.

Of course there is a great deal of over-simplification here but I think the point stands – if other restaurants can make a success at this price point, there’s nothing stopping Jamie Oliver.

As to introducing us to reasonably priced Italian food, we met already. About 30 years ago.

What our imaginary friends ate
Jamie’s Italian Covent Garden Nico’s Spuntino Bar & Restaurant
Antipasto Antipasto
Plank (shared platter) HK$178 Seafood platter HK$228
Crispy squid HK$75 Tuna salad HK$88
Bruschetta HK$50 Bread basket HK$28
Pasta Pasta
Penne carbonara HK$77 Carbonara (choice of pasta) HK$158
Seafood buccatini HK$194 Sicilian red prawns HK$238
Main course Main course
Jamie’s burger HK$142 Polpete di manzo al sugo* HK$148
Chips HK$42 Mashed potatoes HK$48
Fillet steak HK$311 16oz t-bone steak HK$388
Salad HK$38 Side salad HK$48
Dessert Dessert
All cost  HK$64  Scoop of ice cream & Sicilian wine with an edible cigar HK$136
Total: HK$1,235 Total: HK$1,502

(Menu prices from Jamie’s Italian Covent Garden converted from pounds sterling at a rate of £1 = HK$12.97)

*meatballs in a tomato sauce