British dining tycoon eyes Hong Kong expansion

British nightlife entrepreneur Matt Hermer is sensitive to local preferences ashe considers expanding Hong Kong portfolio, writes Tiffany Ap

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 November, 2014, 11:11pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 November, 2014, 11:11pm

If one common thread linked the most anticipated openings in Hong Kong's dining and nightlife scene during the past year, it was the Big British Names.

Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Jason Atherton all put down roots in the city, or expanded them. Now Matt Hermer, who already owns the exclusive Pottinger Street nightclub Boujis, plus a portfolio of overseas bars and restaurants under the Ignite Group, is set to keep that trend going through to next year.

In town recently to celebrate the second anniversary of Boujis, sister to the original South Kensington venue of the same name, Hermer is ready to embark on a second Hong Kong venture. He's launching a local edition of his slick cocktail bar Eclipse, which has locations in London and Barcelona, and is a concept he's also expanding to the Middle East.

Within the year, Hongkongers can expect to be sipping on the bar's signature watermelon martini on the slopes of SoHo, although Hermer's keeping mum on exactly where, and when.

"We've got lots of expansion to do in the next 12 months and it's a question of priority. I can't be on a plane the whole time nor do I want to be," says Hermer, who visits the city three to four times a year. "I've always said it was obvious that we should have more than one venue. From a management perspective there are economies of scale."

But trumping any kind of convenience factor, Hong Kong has become incredibly cool over the past few years in Hermer's eyes. "Hong Kong was always a bit staid and defined by venues like the Mandarin [Oriental Hotel]. You'll see now cooler concepts, not so much on the hotel scene," he says. "I have been coming to Hong Kong for 15 years and it was the same up until the last five years when there was an explosion of cool new concepts."

There are clubs that are very Asian-centric and some are very Western … It’s almost apartheid to a degree

And what venues get the Hermer stamp of approval? The Upper House hotel, Japanese yakitori joint Yardbird and Tex-Mex eatery Brickhouse. "I'm amazed that people would queue. I think probably when I was here 10 years ago, you would never get those people to stand in line ever, ever, and now people will do it without thinking," he says.

"That does alienate a certain demographic, but if the concept is good enough, people will go without having a booking. Yardbird and Brickhouse are sensational. They are both concepts I never thought I'd be getting inspiration from in Hong Kong and I think that's great."

Although Hermer's own flavour of cool has been a winning formula in Britain (he has been quoted as saying he knew Boujis was a success when he saw Denzel Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio and Owen Wilson partying alongside two members of the British royal family), global expansion is not quite as straightforward as the wholesale transplanting of British concepts overseas.

"I think it's always very dangerous to come to a place and say this is who we are and what we do. I don't think it's a smart way to enter. You see people who do that and fail, certainly from an F&B perspective. You need to have local knowledge and local partners," Hermer says.

"There are drinks on the menu that are more Asian-centric. We would not be as heavy on whisky in Britain as we are here and people go out a bit later in Hong Kong to say the least. It is slightly more hedonistic."

As a cocktail bar, adaptations to local tastes may be more apparent in Eclipse than Boujis, whose core clientele in Hong Kong is heavily expatriate. "There are clubs here that are very Asian-centric and some are very Western. In an ideal world, I'd have both but I can't reinvent the market for that. There are some cultural differences … It's almost apartheid to a degree," Hermer says. "The perfect world for me would be more mixed than we are, but because of the brand origination we have more expats."

Hermer's focus on Asia is somewhat surprising given that he previously told media he wanted to expand to the Middle East before coming to this region. However, he says those plans fell through after the 2008 financial crisis.

"It's much harder to do a deal in the Middle East than it is here," he says. "I prefer the food and the culture here. That said, we will be doing more there now that it has opened up for business."

Hermer demurs when asked whether his grand vision is a Boujis or a Bumpkin (his chain of British brasseries) in every major city, and whether Hong Kong is a stepping stone to an empire across the border. "We've been lured to Shanghai and Beijing a lot, but unless a sensational venue pops up there, the next venue will be in Hong Kong. Travelling is less glamorous now," he says.

After all, he has a wife, Marissa, who now heads the Ignite Group's media strategy, and two young sons. "Old people like me are struggling to keep up at 3am," he says, laughing.

"We were offered something in Guangzhou five years ago in conjunction with a hotel operator, but I turned it down. I said, 'I think I need to be in Hong Kong first'. Baby steps. I'm not looking for global domination at all, just the select market where my customers will get on a plane from London to Hong Kong because they know they will like it."

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