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Perfect recipe for success

Published on Friday, 15 Jan 2010
Jennifer Liu says she could not resist the low rents during the peak of Sars.
Photo: Edward Wong

Success doesn't come by chance to entrepreneurs. Seizing the opportunity and taking risks are the ingredients needed to cook up a winning business, especially in Hong Kong's competitive restaurant scene.

Jennifer Liu, founder and chairman of Sir Hudson International, a local restaurant group specialising in lifestyle dining, always knew she needed to aim high when she worked at a local architectural firm after graduating from Cornell University with a bachelor's degree in architecture in 1997. Her first experience of running a technology business with two partners ended when it was sold in 2000.

But her entrepreneurial drive did not end there. She took a break from her career and went to New York, exploring the cultural richness of the city and taking various courses from cooking to wine tasting, and art and antique appreciation to enrich her life.

She returned to Hong Kong in 2003, ready to get into the hospitality industry. It was the year when severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) struck, crippling the local economy.

Nevertheless, Liu took advantage of the gloom as rents plunged and experienced staff were available. After raising enough money from friends, family and overseas investments, Liu opened her first modern upmarket Italian restaurant at the Lee Gardens in Causeway Bay.

"Rents, labour and overall food and beverage costs during the Sars epidemic were a great bargain. My first Habitu Ristorante was an upscale Italian dining facility and it matched the profile of sophisticated clients that Lee Gardens wanted to attract. I just could not resist the low rent and costs, and the property developer was impressed with my business plan," Liu says.

"I had already anticipated potential risks in opening an upscale Italian restaurant during Sars. However, I also knew that if I missed the opportunity, it may never come back again," says Liu, who acknowledges that she is addicted to restaurant hopping in Hong Kong and overseas.

Driven by the success of Habitu in 2003, Liu and her two former business partners worked tirelessly over the years to build their restaurant group, which include Caffe Habitu, Suzuki Cafe, Harakan, Tutto and Teppan, serving Italian and Japanese food.

Liu's architectural background has played a key role in shaping the interior design of all her restaurants. "It was a wonderful experience when each time we opened up a restaurant," she recalls. "The whole process enriched my life experience."

Travelling and sampling different gourmet food in Hong Kong and overseas are what Liu enjoys doing, and she has a particular liking for Japanese and Italian cuisine. "When I was a child, I travelled a lot with my family to Japan, and I studied in Italy as an exchange student for a year during my college years." Her enthusiasm for food and extensive exposure to different cultures tells her that it is important to let native chefs take charge of the group's kitchens to create authentic flavours.

"I have tried restaurants serving Asian food, where the head chef is a local Chinese and the food just did not taste authentic. I would rather hire a qualified native chef. My two executive chefs are an Italian and a Japanese," Liu says.

Having opened six different restaurants that cater to mid- to high-end customers, Liu says that a dedicated project development team has contributed to the success of the restaurant group.

"I have a team of experts who are very experienced in design, market research and business development, and the data they collect from various sources helps me understand market intelligence such as customer behaviour and their spending patterns, competition in the industry, location and traffic. With all this information I can decide when it is economically feasible to open another restaurant," Liu says.

She has plans to open restaurants on the mainland in next five years. "My partners and I recently visited many malls in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and second-tier cities to look for opportunities.

"China is a huge market and we need to study it. But once we have sorted out our business plan, we hope [to open restaurants on the mainland]."

Sir Hudson International has 15 outlets under six restaurant brands in Hong Kong and Kowloon.

Ten things I know

  1. Be innovative Hong Kong is acosmopolitan city where people come from different backgrounds and nationalities, and there is always a market for dining ideas. If you know how to package them well and know what your target audiences want, success is half-achieved.
  2. Seize opportunities Life can be full offun if you know how to hold on to a business opportunity that interests you. Do your best and pull out all the stops at every attempt and, even if it fails, just see it as a valuable life experience and learn from the mistakes.
  3. Take risks gingerly You shouldunderstand every opportunity involves some potential risk. I think being cautious is necessary but as long as the gain outweighs the risk, then it's worth a try.
  4. Hire quality people When it comes torunning a restaurant, good people are as important as the quality of the food it serves. You may need to pay more to hire high-calibre people to help grow your business, and it is a worthwhile investment.
  5. Have a can-do attitude It is alwaysimportant for entrepreneurs to always have a positive attitude and believe that nothing can bog you down from what you want to do. This can-do mentality will surely help you overcome many issues and put you back on track.
  6. Brand differentiation Hong Kong ischock-a-block with different types of restaurants. New ones are opening every day, but that does not mean the slice of your share will become smaller, as long as you know how to differentiate your brand and meet customers' needs.
  7. Expand your horizon I always believenothing can improve if one is only working inside one's own little cocoon with no exposure to the outside world. I like travelling to many places to broaden my life experience and horizons.
  8. Know how to delegate It isimpossible to oversee everything in the company. Delegating to people who have the ability not only spares me time to do other things but also provides them with a chance to demonstrate their skills and worth.
  9. Know your books well In running yourown business, there is no one but yourself who should be responsible for your company's profit and loss. Therefore, it is important to be very careful with every dollar you spend.
  10. Be a good corporate citizen Aresponsible citizen in the corporate world should always help look after the needy in the community whenever possible. I always believe that what goes around comes around.

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