Engineering a restaurant revolution
The son of a restaurant tycoon, Simon Wong Kit-lung did not show much interest in following in his father’s footsteps when growing up. Instead, he had a passion for infrastructure. After graduating with a degree in civil engineering, Wong worked in a consultancy and the government’s highways department. Many questioned his decision to work as an engineer instead of taking up the reins of the family business.
The 1997 financial crisis saw Wong lose his government job, which proved to be the turning point for him to enter the restaurant business. After putting in more than 0 years of hard work, Wong is now executive director of LH Group, which has more than 30 eateries around Hong Kong. In 2011, he was selected as one of the Ten Outstanding Persons by Junior Chamber International Hong Kong.
What were the obstacles you had to overcome in shifting from engineering to restaurants?
The transition was tough, as I had zero experience. But I tried to learn as much as I could by studying courses. For example, I signed up for courses offered by the Institute of Dining Art, and began learning from scratch. I was very happy to get to know my 39 classmates and I learned a lot from them. I learned a lot about how a restaurant operates and began to think of a more efficient system to prepare food. The learning experience has helped me build sound fundamentals as a restaurant manager.
What’s your management philosophy?
I don’t provide my staff with jobs – I provide them with a platform to develop their careers. I believe one must have a goal to excel and I hope my staff share this belief. Every year, I encourage them to set five goals for themselves. I want to give them a clear picture of where they are going. I find this very effective in inspiring staff to think about what kind of person they want to be and move towards achieving their goals, step by step.
Success is a subjective concept – you cannot judge it with grades or marks. I consider those who enjoy what they enjoy to be successful. You are successful so long as you have a goal and work hard to reach it.
What are the challenges in the restaurant business?
Currently, the Hong Kong restaurant industry is facing three “highs” – high rents, high salaries and high food prices. Government policies on charging waste-handling and sewage fees only make things worse. Restaurants have to be flexible and know their strengths and weaknesses in order to succeed. They have to find their market niche to survive. For example, we were one of the first to introduce banquet menus with no shark-fin soup. This fits in well with middle-class consumers who care about the environment. We were also the first to have a banquet menu approved by the World Wide Fund as a “green menu” and this has helped build our green image and brand name.
What do you think of the local food and beverage market?
Local consumers are well-informed, they know food really well, especially Chinese and Japanese cuisines. Local consumers can easily distinguish the different styles of Chinese dishes, whether they are Cantonese or Shanghainese. They also know Japanese dishes well from sushi to ramen, so two years ago, I began to introduce restaurants that specialise in certain types of food, such as Japanese barbecue and shabu-shabu. I think restaurants need to specialise to impress customers.
What is your advice for those who want to open a restaurant?
I have to say that now is not a good time to open a restaurant due to high costs. Newcomers need to be 100 per cent sure they love the industry before they join because it is really tough. The working hours are long and restaurants open every day of the year. You never get time off during holidays because these are the peak seasons for restaurants. You will be working when others are having fun. But if you are passionate and willing to learn, there is a great chance to succeed.