Fine-dining restaurants in Hong Kong prioritise quality to ensure business is sustainable

Leading restaurateurs are exploring different ways to ensure they can ride out the city’s waves of bull and bear markets and sustain their bottom line

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 March, 2017, 10:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 March, 2017, 10:00am

In these uncertain times, expense accounts may not be as generous as they once were, but canny fine-dining restaurateurs find ways to stay in business.

It’s accepted that commercial gastronomy at the upper end relies on a steady diet of CEOs and business people. Owners and chefs want to create unique culinary experiences, service and environments to entice the business dining clientele.

But statistics reveal that high-end food and beverage enterprises are among the riskiest bets for investors. You would have a much better chance of recouping your money by putting it into fish balls or a hamburger stand. Of course, there isn’t the same glamour attached. So, year after year, optimistic operators open new and expensively designed eateries hoping to catch lightning in a bottle.

What separates real industry survivors from vanity enterprises – fund guys looking to park their bonuses in their own place to hang out in – is vision and a focus on customers.

Consultant Sam Lau develops staff programmes for Hong Kong companies to build team spirit, boost morale and nurture optimal productivity. In short, his firm Total Loyalty assists in creating happy offices. Part of the job includes organising business dining events, so he knows exactly what corporates want in a meeting and a meal.

A good business dining venue should have discrete and efficient service
Sam Lau, Total Loyalty

“In the frantic city pace, business lunches and dinners have to be in the main, efficient,” Lau suggests. “Healthy options are important now as alternatives, and also catering to more dietary needs. Generally, business people are conscious about not having a heavy meal over lunch. The venue should have some atmosphere but still enable good conversation across the whole table. Hence, the venue’s acoustics are of some importance. A good business dining venue should have discrete and efficient service. Staff should know when to not interrupt a discussion, which is a key frustration at many a business lunch or meeting.”

According to Lau, cuts have affected some entertainment budgets but are one of among several factors determining where the suits might choose to go for a power lunch or dinner. And of course, people’s time is still money. “I think the traditional long lunch is certainly a thing of the past.”

Ultimately, businessmen and CEOs are swayed by the same cultural influences as everyone else, from social movements to popular media icons.

“Many companies have policies now on having sustainable seafood on the menu – no shark fins – and [are] certainly less extravagant with their menu selections,” Lau adds. “Also, in Hong Kong I think we are still a bit star struck by celebrity chefs, so I don’t think it hurts if the meal invitation includes some access to famous chefs. Since there is a plethora of restaurant choices and price ranges in Hong Kong, it is fantastic for the consumer. Restaurants that can highlight their uniqueness and provide diners with something memorable (such as an off-menu item or secret cooking tips) are more likely to enhance the business dining experience and secure return business. Having said that, restaurants do need to remember that the main agenda of a business meal is to discuss business – so the best dining venues are the ones where the staff recognise the need to be discrete and attentive.”

One chef who has been successful in elevating his culinary branding is Richard Ekkebus. His restaurant Amber, in the Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hotel, is one of the city’s success stories. It has two Michelin stars and is number four on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. But the struggle to maintain a sustainable bottom line is a constant. His sights are set on expanding the customer base beyond that of just Central executives.

“Our casual [client] segment has grown steadily over the last five years,” Ekkebus explains. “It’s regional and international clientele, along with females.

“Over lunch this casual segment is more than 50 per cent now. Over dinner it is more that 9 per cent. They are looking for a storytelling experience in a multiple course menu. This is the fruit of Amber’s international recognition and has been great for business. Prior, with more business clientele, we would have highs and lows due to high and lower business activity.

“Our main challenge is reservation no shows. These profoundly affect us financially and create wastage. Therefore, we will start [asking customers] this year to prepay any bookings made. This trend ... is still new [with restaurants] in Hong Kong, but is a common practice around the world. I am certain most restaurants will follow suit rapidly.”

Another restaurant fighting for a piece of the business pie is Beefbar, headed by executive chef Andrea Spagoni. As a new contender, it has impressed with its appealing décor and even more appealing steaks, winning a Michelin star in its first year.

“Beefbar is still a young venue in Hong Kong [having opened in November 2015],” he notes. “Challenges are always in front of us. Mostly they are related to building the brand and keeping its identity. We offer great value for food and service quality, conveniently located in the heart of Central yet still tucked away from the city’s hustle and bustle. At Beefbar, every guest is important. But I would say business dining accounts for 80 per cent of the business.”

Maximal concepts has become a major player with hits such as Mercedes Me and Mott 32. Culinary director Malcolm Wood consider these outlets a general barometer of the city’s health.

“They are a good ... indicator of how well the financial sector is doing,” Wood theorises. “When you start getting restaurants closing down in Central, you will know we are in a down market.

“We have come across many challenges this year. Restaurateurs have had to stay on top of their game, and marketing has never played more of an important role in success. It is important to see what is working and what isn’t to adapt quickly. More importantly, the people that are left standing have had to elevate and educate themselves to attract customers, month in month out.”

But what if you’re not located in the Central business district? How do you attract a faithful clientele and engage the corporate crowd?

Chef Olivier Elzer of one Michelin star Seasons by Olivier E believes in delivering not only good food, but also a customised personal touch. “Compared to other clientele, business customers have special needs and expectations of service,” Elzer explains. “It starts with recognising guests by their names and remembering their preferences, in addition to providing fast and efficient service with privacy and discretion.

“Hong Kong is a competitive and dense market where quality consistency is the key. Our business clientele is considerably significant during lunch time mainly due to our location (in Lee Garden) surrounded by offices of many different companies. Other issues like menu variety, healthy and light food options and reasonable prices are a must as some guests come daily for restaurant meetings.”

The last word goes to the three Michelin star chef who has seen the ups and downs of business dining in Hong Kong. 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo’s Umberto Bombana, from his days in the early 1990s with Tosca in the old Ritz-Carlton to his present Italian cuisine empire, has long been riding the waves of the city’s bull and bear markets.

He says: “Consistency is the main challenge. To stay on top of the market, you keep consistency and satisfy guests with heart. They will feel your effort and honesty, and come back.”