Co-founders of Black Sheep Restaurants find success with concept eateries in Central and SoHo
The recent opening of Stazione Novella marks the eighth concept in just four years for Black Sheep Restaurants, and its co-founders - Canadian Christopher Mark and Hong Kong-born Syed Asim Hussain - say that with each concept, there is a story that needs to be told.
"We want to tell stories through food," says Hussain, who turned his back on a career in finance to set up Black Sheep in 2012 with Mark, a seasoned chef who has worked at top establishments in Canada, Shanghai, Barbados and Hong Kong. Since then, they have opened popular eateries Boqueria, Motorino, La Vache!, Ho Lee Fook, Chôm Chôm, Carbone and Burger Circus.
The story behind their latest venture, Stazione Novella - an Italian bar that sells "the best paninis in town", according to Mark - came out of an unfortunate incident while on a business trip in Italy.
"We went to buy some wine for our restaurants in Italy, and we set up all these meetings with wine merchants from the north to south of the country," Mark says. "I think in Naples our wallets were stolen. So we got to Florence and realised we had no money. We couldn't even check into our hotel, so we had to make arrangements through Western Union. Asim had a couple of euros in his pocket, so we went to a panini shop, and it was pretty good. We were quite hungry, and even though we lost our shirts, we were having a glass of wine, we were having a panini, we were having a good time. We were not downtrodden by this, and so we are trying to create something like that in Hong Kong."
"We are trying to build a convivial neighbourhood bar that's Italian and serves paninis," Hussain adds. "We named the bar after the same station in Florence [where we enjoyed our wine and panini]. The new Italian bar is across the road from PMQ, so there is a lot of hustle and bustle on the corner. So we catch the energy of the train station."
Burger Circus has a story as well. "It's a bit nostalgic," Hussain says of the fast-food eatery on Hollywood Road that is reminiscent of a 1950s milk diner/train carriage, with a menu featuring desserts and alcoholic milkshakes in addition to the selection of burgers.
"We play a lot of pop from the '80s. The idea is that's it's a mid-[20th] century diner. When Chris was a teenager, he was listening to disco music and eating this food, so we wanted to bring these things together."
"We didn't want anything too aggressive," Mark adds. "We could have gone for an American rock era, but it would have changed the atmosphere in the restaurant."
Music is an important part of the ambience in all their restaurants, from Carbone's classic Frank Sinatra sound evoking Italian-American New York to the trendy, upbeat tunes at La Vache! "We spend a lot of time curating our playlists; we think it engages people - even if they hate it, at least they are aware of the environment," Mark says.
Hussain and Mark met while working for the restaurant group Dining Concepts and found they had similar ideas. "We could see that there was a niche in the market that the established players were not filling. What we wanted to do was more focused concepts," says Hussain, whose love for the restaurant industry came while working as a teenager in his father's restaurant in Hong Kong, where he "ran the gamut", as he puts it, from cleaning bathrooms and dishwashing to working the front of the house.
"We don't just do Vietnamese food, Chôm Chôm serves Hanoi food. La Vache! is neither a steak nor a French restaurant, it's a steak frites restaurant. La Vache! has been accepted by everyone. Women love it, locals love it. You walk in on a Monday night, and it's grandfathers with grandchildren, there's a group of guys from the bank, it's a girls' night out - everyone has made that their restaurant."
However, the first few years were tough, the restaurateurs admit. "Boqueria was our first restaurant, but we had been working on [Neapolitan pizzeria] Motorino before that for a long time," says Hussain, adding that they looked at around 170 sites before opting for the one in Central then later on Ship Street in Wan Chai. "We were working in the day, then at nighttime or on the weekend, a realtor would take us around to a site."
"By that time we were committed to it," Mark says. "I had gone to Naples for a couple of months to learn how to make pizza, we had quit our jobs, and we just weren't getting anywhere with this."
He adds: "What we have learned is that good sites never come on the market."
"All our sites now have come to us through contacts," Hussain says. "We are lucky now that people want us to be in their places."
The partners have multiple concepts in the works, but they say the site determines the idea. "If we find a good site, we will say, 'OK, what's the best concept for the site?' And if we see that nothing on our list is a good match, we will build a new concept," Hussain says. "The site comes first."
So far, Black Sheep has not ventured beyond Central, SoHo and Wan Chai. "When we were first building the company, we always came back to this notion of building a stable of restaurants close enough so we can touch, see, feel things every day. [After which] we will try to gradually expand the stable," Hussain says.
And, sure enough, on any night of the week, diners will see both restaurateurs at their eateries until late into the evening. At any given moment, Hussain can fill in on the floor and Mark, if need be, in the kitchen.
But another reason to stay close-knit, they say, is that each district is so different. "This area [Central] is quite different from SoHo. The way people use restaurants in SoHo is very different to how they use restaurants in Lan Kwai Fong, and even more different to Wan Chai. So understanding their neighbourhood markets is very important," says Hussain, who does not rule out expanding into other neighbourhoods in the near future and into hospitality services.
"I think Black Sheep will evolve into a hospitality company. We are a restaurant company, but I won't be surprised if we get into hotels," he says.