Catering to sophisticated palates
According to Andrew Lee, associate director of the restaurant group Mr Steak Concept, Hong Kong's well-travelled and well-informed local diners have high expectations of the restaurants in which they eat.
"Diners are becoming more sophisticated," he says. "They can tell the difference between German, Belgian or Spanish dishes. When eating Japanese food, they have a clear idea of what sushi, ramen and shabu shabu should be like. Restaurant owners must provide high-quality, authentic food to meet diners' expectations."
Mr Steak Concept opened its first steak house in Hong Kong 20 years ago. Since then, it has expanded the scope of its business to running oyster bars and Japanese restaurants.
"Hong Kong has a rich Asian culture, so food that is eaten with chopsticks is going to be popular. It also has a rich cha chaan teng culture. Japanese cuisine is also popular, because its taste is close to that of Chinese food. Local diners also demand specialisation in cuisines, so we have an oyster bar," Lee says.
The Hong Kong market is dynamic, with new trends regularly appearing. "The latest trend is the craze for Spanish cuisine," Lee says. "You can see loads of Spanish restaurants opening. It seems to follow a cycle. When a new trend is introduced, there will be a boom in the market, resulting in keen competition. Less accomplished restaurants will be phased out.
"Local diners are open-minded and the remaining restaurants have a good chance of surviving long term, because the market has already accepted the new trend as part of the dining culture."
With 10 outlets in Hong Kong, it is important for Mr Steak Concept to provide a structured career path to retain talent. Lee says they are keen to promote kitchen staff to management positions.
"At Mr Steak, we don't want our chefs to know only how to cook; we want them to develop their expertise. If a chef is in charge of preparing steak, we hope to make him an expert in meat one day," he says.
The company provides varied training for kitchen staff. "For junior staff, there is regular training to brush up their cooking skills. For middle management and above, we have training to prepare them for future supervisory roles. Administrative posts, such as regional executive chef and group head chef, are filled by promoting kitchen staff," Lee says.
He hopes that providing a structured career path can also attract talent. "In Western countries, they have celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay who started out as kitchen chefs and became managers of their own brand name. Chefs are well-respected professionals. If Hong Kong can offer prospects like that, I am sure it will attract people to join," he says.
But one of the main obstacles to restaurant expansion in Hong Kong is the lack of human capital. "Restaurants are a labour-intensive business. If we cannot get enough people, we cannot expand, even though there is market demand and no shortage of capital," Lee says.