Jennifer Liu Wai-fun has an eye for design, thanks to her architectural training. She also has a passion for coffee and building a brand that reaches out to the community.
After studying architecture at Cornell University, Liu returned to Hong Kong and was soon working with clients mostly based on the mainland.
When the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic hit in 2003, her perspectives started to change. "I wanted to see more of Hong Kong, to be in touch with the public more. And so I thought people [can] meet and interact in a cafe." This idea, along with her love of coffee borne from study trips to Italy, led to the birth of caffè HABITU at Lee Gardens. What sets it apart from the other coffee chains in the city is its laid-back European atmosphere that allows hard-working people, such as Liu, to unwind and enjoy a cup of the best Italian coffee.
A chain of gourmet coffee shops wasn't Liu's first foray into business, for being entrepreneurial is in her blood. Her parents are in the property and banking sectors and, in 1999, she started a real estate portal just as the internet boom was gaining momentum. "I came back to Hong Kong looking for an apartment and at the time I worked six days a week, so I only had one day to look for a flat," Liu recalls. "And I wondered why I was spending so much time going to all these different places when there was no website where you could share photos and comments about places you'd seen.
"Whatever I saw, I took pictures of, and made comments and put them up on the site," she says. "From there we started a community and it soon attracted investors. It kept growing and we had more content and then we sold it in 2000. But I learned from my dotcom experience that if you love it, you have to hang on to it."
Liu is letting her passion for coffee guide her in developing her company, Sir Hudson International, which also has HABITU Ristorante, and has expanded to Japanese outlets such as Suzuki Café and Harakan-S. "The Japanese and Italians don't grow coffee beans themselves, but are good coffee promoters who respect coffee in their own ways. Suzuki Café and Harakan-S are natural extensions of my passion for coffee."
She is the driving force behind all corporate social responsibility initiatives for her brand. This year, she opened her first green concept branch, caffè HABITU in CITIC Tower, which emphasises a balanced diet through vegetarian dishes.
As a green lifestyle advocate, Liu has worked closely with Social Venture Hong Kong and has collaborated with charities, such as Table for Two, Green Mondays and Coffee in the Dark.
She was appointed consultant of iBakery, a social enterprise organisation managed by the mentally disabled, under Tung Wah Group of Hospitals. The government recognised her work and presented her with the Friends of Social Enterprise 2012 award.
Liu has elicited much interest in bringing caffè HABITU to China and the first of several outlets was to open in August in Shanghai. The flagship will be owned by Sir Hudson, while the rest are via franchisers.