Man behind 26 Hong Kong restaurants is hungry to expand - and Gordon Ramsay is on the menu
Sandeep Sekhri has thrived on filling dining niches. He tells Tracey Furniss about his restaurants, their celebrity chefs, and his group's plans for expansion
Sandeep Sekhri, founder and managing director of Dining Concepts, has helped shape the Hong Kong dining scene over the past 13 years.
As one of the first non-Chinese dining groups in the city to nurture home-grown talent and bring celebrity chef brands here, Dining Concepts has opened multiple restaurants over a short period, helping SoHo to become a dining hub.
Now with 26 restaurants, including Bombay Dreams, Braza, Craftsteak, Mama San, BLT Burger, Nahm, Al Molo - the list goes on - and 700 employees throughout Central, SoHo, Tsim Sha Tsui, and a pizzeria in Macau, the organisation is set to expand dramatically over the next few years with new ventures in Hong Kong and the mainland, starting with another Gordon Ramsay brand opening soon.
"We are opening London House with Gordon Ramsay - a pub and grill. It's in Tsim Sha Tsui Centre, in Tsim Sha Tsui East, and the majority of the seats are outdoors facing the harbour. It has 70 to 80 outdoor seats," says Sekhri, who points out that Ramsay's Macau restaurant will not go ahead and that London House is different to Bread Street Kitchen in that it is a gastro-pub concept.
Then, towards the end of the year, Dining Concepts will roll out well-known Belgian cafe brand Le Pain Quotidien across Greater China. "It's a communal-table bakery cafe and there are about 300 of them all around the world. We have the licence for Hong Kong and Greater China, so the idea is to expand. It's happening by the end of the year," Sekhri says.
"[This bakery] is moving with the times; it's organic, it's fresh, people can go there for a coffee, it's a meeting place. About 60 to 70 per cent of the clientele are women. It's big on breakfast, lunch, tea and some dinner - they adapt to different countries in different ways.
"Everything is made with reclaimed wood, everything comes from Belgium. The stores are fitted out in Belgium and then shipped over. You literally have to just fit things in."
With so many concepts under his umbrella, Sekhri says he seeks concepts that fill niches.
"I see what is missing in Hong Kong," he says. "Is there a void that we can fill? Is there a niche market? Not everything that works in North America or Europe might work in Hong Kong. So we have to be very careful in choosing the next project because real estate is limited, time is limited, resources are limited."
Sekhri is also expanding on the mainland with other casual dining concepts. "Depending on the real estate, we are always ready to expand and do more," he says. "And, next year, we are ready to launch some of our concepts in China. We will start with Shanghai. We are ready to do scalable, non-chef-driven restaurants to start with. They are easier to execute. It could be a Korean brand but more casual dining."
Delhi-born Sekhri arrived in Hong Kong in 1990 at the age of 24, and with the idea of only staying a few years. "I came to work here as a restaurant manager at The Viceroy in Sun Hung Kai Centre," he says. "This was my first trip outside India. I had just got married and decided to explore what Hong Kong was like."
Within five years, he became a partner in the Harilela-owned company. "There were several businesses we did besides restaurants. We did hotel supplies, point-of-sales systems, a kitchen company, a linen division, a lot of food and beverage-related businesses."
By 2002, it was time for a change and Sekhri split with his business partners and alone founded Dining Concepts, opening Bombay Dreams in Central and Tsim Sha Tsui.
"Six months after I started, Sars hit Hong Kong [in 2003]," Sekhri says. Business dropped, but he still believed there were opportunities to be had.
"We explored opportunities of doing something in SoHo," he adds. "We thought SoHo could be a dining district. We were able to get long leases for fairly inexpensive rents. I opened SoHo Spice in December 2003. Then we opened Olive in 2004, then in 2005 and 2006 we opened Cecconi's and Craftsteak. So we had five restaurants on the same street."
He realised he was competing with himself on the same street but was pragmatic. "If I don't do it, someone else will come along. [More restaurants] draw more people.
"You lose a little bit of sales for the first few months, but then it starts to draw a lot more people."
Sekhri is also known for drawing world-renowned chefs to Hong Kong such as Michael White, Mario Batali and, more recently, Gordon Ramsay. "In 2008, we were offered a space in Harbour City and they wanted to get a steakhouse but they wanted a brand name," he says. "I started exploring the various possibilities and that's how we opened BLT Steak with a chef called Laurent Tourondel from New York - it's a huge brand in New York. Then Laurent introduced me to Michael White and I opened Al Molo, and then I got to know Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich through Michael White, and we opened Lupa. Then I got to know Gordon Ramsay through Joe Bastianich.
"They want to come to Hong Kong, but they want to come with someone who they can rely on and trust with the execution of their brands."
Although other dining groups have expanded their home-grown brands to Europe, Sekhri has no plans to follow suit for the time being.
"We see so many opportunities in Hong Kong and our natural next stop is China," he says. "I would not want to spread ourselves so thin."