Diners can't get enough of the kitschy fare at Hello Kitty Chinese restaurant
Man Kwong, the founder of Hello Kitty Chinese Cuisine, did not foresee the overwhelming response to the world's first Cantonese restaurant styled after its most recognisable cat.
Every item from the interior to the food gives a nod to the cartoon kitty. The kitchen prepares local fare accented with the brand's motif, including dim sum such as shrimp dumplings adorned with that mouth-free face and pink ribbon.
"Everything here had to be approved by Sanrio [the Japanese company that originated Hello Kitty], even the tissue," Kwong says, which is why it took 18 months to open the Jordan venue.
In the first half of April, only Hello Kitty fan club members were permitted inside. On April 16, the doors opened to the rest of the public.
"The response was enormous - huge - with long queues outside," says Kwong. "During that week we realised we were short of manpower and food as there were a few incidents when people complained because the popular dim sum were sold out by evening," he says.
Kwong hired more chefs and waiting staff and increased the inventory to cater to the demand. The queues are still extensive, especially on weekends when queues are one to two hours long.
Kwong is also owner of the Hong Kong Chinese Medicine Magazine, which covers Asian-style health food and practices, but he found the printed word was a slow medium for distilling such advice and spreading it to young people. And then he came up with the idea of using a restaurant centred on the cartoon character in 2013.
The kitchen uses organic vegetables and natural colouring such as squid ink to paint Hello Kitty's eyes and lashes on buns. The dim sum is prepared with less salt and oil, too. More health-oriented dishes will be on the menu in future, featuring foods such as coconut oil.
Kwong cites a combination of reasons behind the venue's success, such as being the first Chinese-style Hello Kitty restaurant.
The surprise factor from the kitschy dishes is another lure for Kwong's predominantly female clientele. "They are astonished by how cute the food is, especially the dim sum. People ask, 'How can dim sum be made like this?'
"If you make something cute, it can sell well [and this rule applies everywhere] not just in Hong Kong."
Social media is an important ingredient in its popularity; he claims almost everyone at the restaurant captures images of the dishes or interior. "People queue for one or two hours, so once inside they take photos to show their pride in coming to a place that others have not tried before," Kwong says. "It's a kind of showing off."
A strong social element also drives this kitschy dining culture, making a club of devotees. Credit goes to Sanrio's nearly 40-year presence in the city and the company's savvy marketing tactics, which have made Hello Kitty part of the lives of many Hongkongers.
Kwong says a visit to the restaurant helps families bond across generations as members share Kitty-centric Cantonese cuisine.
Dorcas Cheung, head of sales and marketing at a publishing house, is a case in point; she's a fan of the brand who has spent 30 years collecting associated merchandise. The brand has a strong presence in her family life. When she was a child, her mother bought her countless McDonald's meals, so Cheung could collect the entire set of cat figurines during the chain's Hello Kitty promotion, one of its most successful. This infatuation with the character extends to her relatives, including Cheung's aunt who is also obsessed with Hello Kitty.
"Even my fiancé has accepted it as he designed the invitation cards to my wedding using Hello Kitty imagery, including the ribbons," she says.
Cheung acknowledges that it is an obsession.
She has visited Hello Kitty House Bangkok in Thailand, which features a spa, restaurant and store; a Hello Kitty cafe in Taipei; Hello Kitty cake shop Baby Mon Cher at Sogo in Hong Kong and more. At each location she's marvelled at the food's cuteness and shared her photos on Facebook.
"Generally, the food is average, but that's OK for fans as long as they find a place to gather; it's just for fun," Cheung says.