Aqua Restaurant Group founder and owner David Yeo enjoys having a lot on his plate
Growing up in Singapore, where his family lived right next to the Little India district in the heart of the city, David Yeo learned early on to appreciate what makes a good meal – and why.
Most evenings centred around dinner at one of the numerous local eateries, with him choosing dishes, testing flavour combinations, experimenting with different cuisines, and engaging in lengthy discussions about preferences with his accountant father, hairdresser mother and two hungry siblings.
“It was convenient, cheap, and the food was great,” says the founder and owner of Aqua Restaurant Group, which had its first opening in Central’s Soho in 2000. It now operates 20 restaurants and bars in Hong Kong, Beijing and London with plans for further expansion in continental Europe and North America. “But, to be honest, there was another reason for eating out so much. My mother wasn’t a good cook, though in other respects she was a real ‘tiger mum’. She was too busy with running her own salon and other things.”
Yeo’s resultant expertise is being put to good use for thousands of diners a day. Nothing goes on an a la carte menu without his approval and he is closely involved with all aspects of day-to-day operations.
Each night, he goes through the relevant figures, using a sophisticated system to check the number of “covers” per restaurant and per session, gauging month-to-date budgets, assessing late-night revenues, and addressing staff and feedback issues – bearing in mind that each restaurant is slightly different and deliberately so.
In parallel, he is also looking for new sites, thinking about fit-outs and décor, and collaborating with chefs on recipe ideas and possible menu changes. The broad aim is to keep innovating by introducing more natural products like seaweed, playing around with flavours and creating signature desserts, while at the same time ensuring guests can always get just what they want. That might be something “edgy” like sushi in a sake wrap or, equally, a favourite main course served with spinach, mashed potato and caramelised onions.
“We have a concept of lifestyle dining to offer something different, but also want people to think of our restaurants as an extension of the home,” Yeo says. “Therefore, we look at everything from the customer’s perspective, make everyone welcome and, generally speaking, take the view that a smile can solve a thousand problems.”
The key is to make service slick but not obtrusive, and to suggest rather than dictate. The focus is on constant improvement, whether that applies to choosing the wine list or training staff to enhance the dining experience. Meanwhile, the challenge in an always competitive sector is to maintain growth and profits in the face of commercial pressures and ever escalating costs.
“When we first started, there was no Soho in Hong Kong and you could find a lot of ‘green field’ sites in places like Kennedy Town and Sai Ying Pun. Now, rent is so high, there is even a flow back into shopping malls where costs are comparatively cheaper.”
In what amounts to a second career, that is just one aspect of learning as you go. However, his former role as a commercial lawyer clearly provided invaluable experience that can now be applied to everything from negotiating contracts and resolving labour issues to scenting potential risks, putting structure in place, and agreeing partnerships with the likes of Giorgio Armani.
After schooldays in Singapore, Yeo went on to study law in England, first in Canterbury and then at Cambridge. He joined the highly regarded law firm Freshfields in the City of London and started to specialise in corporate work, capital markets and banking deals.
As one of very few people able to combine that type of experience with fluency in Putonghua, he was the obvious choice for a move to Hong Kong when the market for H-share listings began to take off in the early 1990s. During the next few years with Herbert Smith, he worked on perhaps 50 per cent of such deals, which gave a great deal of both personal and professional satisfaction.
“Fortunately, I fell in love with the law and found it endlessly fascinating. From the early days of studying criminal law and what constitutes murder, I realised the importance of having rules to follow, so we can put certain things in boxes.”
The subsequent switch into the restaurant business was born more of impulse than of considered career planning. As a confirmed “foodie” who liked to cook whenever business commitments allowed, the nascent interest was always there. But the idea really took shape when friends suggested opening a restaurant, if only semi-seriously at first. There were three years of overlap before Yeo decided to take the plunge by giving up 16-hour days as a partner with a top 10 law firm. Since then he has never looked back.
“I like everything about the job, though it can be a bit scary at times,” he says. “Right now, there is a lot of scope for growth with some headline projects coming up next year. However, there are no plans for a public listing. I know what a pain in the neck that can be.”
Away from work, Yeo is a committed supporter of a local dog rescue charity and is beginning to plan for the day when his role will be less hands-on and involve more mentoring. “At some point, all of us have to step back and be ready to give other staff a sense of ownership,” he says.
Seasoned diners “The level of sophistication regarding food is much higher these days, with people more keenly aware and looking for new experiences.”
What you want, when you want “With the logistics side so much better now, you can get almost any ingredients at any time of the year.”
Power to the people “You sometimes feel at the mercy of self-styled reviewers and bloggers. We rely on word of mouth, but business can be influenced by social media where there is no way of confirming if the comments are justified or not.”
Skills starvation “In Hong Kong specifically, it is increasingly difficult to hire expatriate staff and chefs, while a lot of locals don’t want to work in the F&B industry. That makes it harder to find a good balance of people trained in France or Italy and those with the necessary service and management skills.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Enjoying a full plate .