You think you can run a restaurant?

Ann Williams

SO you want to run a restaurant? Play host, glass in hand, dispensing wit and wisdom to your clientele? The reality can be very different, especially in Hongkong where one food and beverage consultant describes the business as ''cut-throat''. Restaurants come - and restaurants go.

Barry Kalb, of Il Mercato and Marco Polo Pizza, warns against the wouldn't-it-be-great syndrome. He explains: ''A bunch of friends, none of whom is in the food business, sit around saying 'what this town needs is a Mongolian mock turtle restaurant, wouldn't it be great? Let's do it!' '' Rule number one: is your idea endurable? ''Will it bring in customers day after day, lunch and dinner?'' said Kalb, who is also a restaurant consultant.

You must also know your clientele: ''You might know who you would like them to be, that's not the same thing,'' said consultant and executive chef Rosemary Lee.

Location is critical. The ideal, is, of course, something central, but as Kalb says, in Hongkong it can be difficult to find decent-sized premises at a price that makes sense: ''You always have to make a compromise,'' he said.

Tania Webb, general manager of Pomeroy's in Pacific Place, admits location was the main reason for the wine bar-cum-restaurant's slow beginnings. ''Pacific Place Mall had just opened, Pomeroy's was on the third floor where few shops were then open. ''There were not a lot of customers,'' she said.

When the first manager left after just a couple of months, the shareholders took the opportunity to bring in a restaurant trouble-shooter, Kim Murphy, and public relations consultant, Susan Field.


Murphy changed the English pub-grub menu to more upmarket dishes, concentrating on fresh produce. In order to attract attention, Pomeroy's introduced regular food and wine promotions, and Sunday champagne brunch. Staff training, direct mailing, advertising also played its part.

''When a restaurant starts up there are always teething problems, it's a fact of life,'' Field said. ''Success depends on a mix of product service and promotion.'' It's working. Pomeroy's has added a second venue in Wyndham Street, with a third for Causeway Bay in the autumn.

A central location is no guarantee of success. There are rents to consider and competition.

Cathy Leistikow, a 20-year veteran in the restaurant business and crisis management, says having so much competition isn't good if the quality of your food isn't consistent. Diners can easily choose somewhere else.


She underscores the importance of researching costs and pricing. She sees businesses leaking money while they're packed with paying customers. The mistake is not charging enough. ''When it comes to setting prices, restaurateurs shouldn't look at their neighbours and try to undercut them.'' That restaurant might have lower rent and lower operating costs because of better connections in obtaining fresh produce and tableware.

She estimates that the minimum cost of opening a Western restaurant is about HK$3 million: ''Although you can get away with less if you don't need to do much in the way of refurbishment.'' Staffing is another problem, starting from the chef down. If you want Western food, should you go to the expense of bringing in a Western chef? Cathy Leistikow says yes: ''Many restaurants cut corners and hire local staff,'' she said, which means the food is unlikely to be authentic.


Lee believes it isn't necessary to hire foreign staff, but the chefs who teach the staff should be Western. ''The Chinese are very good at learning, but they tend to lack management skills which is why there are so few Chinese executive chefs.'' It's not just staff who can cause you problems, your partners in the venture can prove equally awkward. ''With lots of partners . . . the restaurant becomes full of their friends getting free meals.'' said Kalb.

Gerry McElney of La Bodega also prefers to be the main man. ''The hardest thing [about opening a restaurant] was being in business with other people,'' said McElney, a former banker who set up his Spanish venue with two partners he has since bought out.This was his first full-time, hands-on experience of running a restaurant.