Turning the Tables: Endless complaints aload of whine and waffle

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 9:23am

It's difficult to know who would come first in a whingeing contest between champagne makers and Hong Kong's restaurateurs.

If you talk to any champagne maker, you realise that after five minutes everything that they are telling you is a hidden or not so hidden justification for their high prices. In good times they say that everyone wants to celebrate with bubbles, but the restrictions of the appellation the size of Belgium mean that the right grapes are in short supply. In bad times they bleat on about how keeping to those same (somewhat self-imposed) restrictions and maintaining centuries of tradition keeps their costs up.

I once made the mistake of asking the head of a famous champagne house what blend of grapes he used. I discovered that according to this house no one in Hong Kong understands sparkling wine, including some of our leading sommeliers. It was outrageous to ask the question and he, one of the world's best winemakers had no intention of replying. I cannot imagine a winemaker from any other region in the world reacting to a similar question in that way, but here there was a subtext - shine some light on the magic and we might start questioning the prices.

The unkind comparison between French sparkling winemakers and our very own restaurateurs was prompted by a report in Tuesday's Business Post about rents at a new retail project in Causeway Bay. If the winemakers are silver medallists in the whingeing stakes, Hong Kong's restaurant owners are strong contenders for gold.

In other parts of the world restaurants close because business partners fall out, the restaurant has the wrong concept or is in the wrong location or the chef was caught with his hand in the till. That rarely happens here. It's always the rent. Indeed our restaurateurs do pay some quite exorbitant rents as does virtually every other business in the city, but the most consistent complaints always come from the catering sector and are used to justify upselling, rushed service, cramped tables, service charges the staff don't see and inflated prices.

Why then are five restaurateurs willing to fork out HK$100 per square foot in the new Causeway Bay development, a figure that is reported to be 10 per cent higher than nearby Russell Street, the most expensive retail strip in the world?