Hongkongers love to talk about food and the new restaurants they have dined at. The latter aren’t difficult to find in a city where establishments are opening by the week. The reality, though, is that it’s just different restaurants rotating in the same spaces as rents spiral ever higher.
Last month’s closure of Mercato, chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant in Central, came as a shock to this writer. It had all the hallmarks of success: celebrity chef with strong Hong Kong ties – tick; quality food at reasonable prices – tick; friendly, knowledgeable staff – tick; convenient location – tick.
The Italian restaurant might not have had a Michelin star, but its balance sheet was always in the black, and yet, it would not have been able to afford the rent increase, says the chef, and so it had to close.
Why do landlords do this to the restaurant industry?
Not only do diners lose a place where they like to eat, but serving and kitchen staff lose their jobs, too. And then there are all the plates, pots, pans, stoves, refrigerators, tables that will have to be found a new home – or dumped.
If and when the place is rented to a new tenant, renovations start over with more industrial waste created and thrown into our already overflowing landfills.
Landlords are playing God, testing tenants to see who can fill their coffers the most while the rest of us suffer, left to shell out hard-earned cash for mediocre food.
When chefs visit Hong Kong they are captivated by the city’s buzzing restaurant scene. Little do they know that below the surface, it’s a constant game of musical chairs.
It is nearly impossible for chefs to open a restaurant here without taking a big and – given the distinct possibility of dramatic rent rises down the track – unknowable financial risk. That was the lesson learned by the owners of Motu Kiwi, a New Zealand-themed restaurant in Central that was set to close this weekend, and nearby 12,000 Francs, which shut its doors on December 9.
There is no room for error, no room for experimentation – the concept has to work straight off. Maybe that’s why it sometimes seems restaurants in Hong Kong all serve the same Wagyu beef, lobster, sea urchin and truffles, in some combination – because hey, that’s what people like to eat.
If you can afford to.