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Caffe Habitu founder Jennifer Liu’s well-grounded approach to business

Published on Saturday, 14 Mar 2015

Putting customer loyalty first pays off for restaurant group chairman

Bucking business trends by putting customer loyalty above quick turnaround have paid off for Jennifer Liu Wai-fun, chairman and founder of Hong Kong restaurant group Sir Hudson International.

A school trip to Italy at a young age cultivated her culinary passion and led her to open the Caffe Habitu chain of cafés, as well as flagship artisan coffee house The Coffee Academics in 2012, and The Tea Academics in January this year, with the aim of producing a proud Hong Kong coffee and tea brand.

Since opening her first upmarket Italian restaurant, Habitu Ristorante, in Causeway Bay during the Sars crisis, Liu has stuck to her belief in building up a base of loyal customers. "I'm always very thankful for the first batch of customers in the first few years, the so-called early movers," she says. "They are the ones who really came in, showed support and gave us a lot of comments and feedback so we could improve things."

Born in Hong Kong to the family that owns Chong Hing Bank, it would have been easy to have followed in her parents footsteps. "My parents were in property and banking and didn't want me to do the same stuff. My dad felt a girl should really pursue her passion. He is very forward thinking and put a lot of effort into my education and upbringing. He gave me a lot of freedom."

That freedom allowed her to shape her career from a young age. "I remember I wanted to go to France and Italy for two summers, just to experience life outside of a boarding school. My mum was like, 'no way, you're going to spend too much money and there's going to be too much temptation'. But my dad said, 'no, she has to see the world if she is to pursue and understand what she wants'. So I went on this summer programme and I got in touch with winemaking and coffee making. I was 15. We were stationed in Paris and Rome and travelled around France and Italy."

She decided the closest thing to satisfying her interest and her family's demands would be to study architecture, "because it is in between - it's a professional programme, but also has a lot of art in it. That kind of set my path, because from then on, both education-wise and passion-wise, it has always been something that is a good balance of art and science; business and passion."

Liu graduated with a degree in architecture from Cornell University in 1997 and worked at a local architectural firm. Her first taste of running a business was with a technology company with two partners, which ended when it was sold in 2000.

She then travelled to New York, where she took courses ranging from cooking and wine tasting, to art and antique appreciation. She credits this background for giving her an eye for the design of her restaurants, as well as a different perspective on the food business.

"I guess because I did architecture, I know there are certain things you can calculate and measure. But there's another 50 per cent that is the arts part, which is how people psychologically connect to you."

She says she instinctively felt that putting customers first would pay off in the long run. "It took us four or five years to really get to the public and to really register in people's minds. For the first few years, people were wondering: 'Are they going to last? What are they trying to do? What's their positioning?'

"I'm actually lucky that we had free Wi-fi in the very beginning and we never turned away guests who just had one cup of coffee [and sat] for a few hours, because they were the first people who spread the word for us.

"If I had followed the traditional hotel school way of thinking, which is how many tables per square feet and how many turns per hour and all that, I don't think we'd be where we are today, because we would be too mechanical."

She has developed her own business philosophy: "I don't think business is just transactions - it is really about relationships."

However, she has a word of caution for those looking to start up their own restaurant businesses. "If I was just a typical business person, I probably wouldn't be in this trade because it's very tough to start. The return is not very easy to calculate and measure."

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