Is Hong Kong a paradise for gastronomy? From local street food (dai pai dong) to ultra-refined Western restaurants, the city has in recent years transformed into a Mecca for foodies, says Mathilde Prot, Director of Sopexa Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s restaurant sector is booming, to say the least! Since 2005, the number of eateries there has tripled and the number of top international chefs who have opened restaurants in the city is on the rise. Take for example media darlings Gordon Ramsay (with his Bread Street Kitchen & Bar) and Jamie Oliver (who has opened Italien).
In 2014, however, the “Umbrella Movement” marked a turning point. After years of seething excitement, with new concepts emerging every day and sometimes vanishing just as fast, the time of Spanish food, Nippo-Peruvian fusion cuisine and top-flight gourmet eateries was up. The new generation of guests had had enough of sophistication and wanted something else!
For this new generation, it was the human factor that most strongly impacted their dining experience.
“The people of Hong Kong see service as the most important criterion after value for money and the physical space. Today, we choose a restaurant for great service provided by well-trained staff,” explains Sandeep Sekhri, CEO and founder of Dining Concepts in the March 2018 issue of Hong Kong Echo magazine. Training has become a critical question in order to curb staff turnover (30% a year on average) and to cultivate motivated personnel.
Today, a well developed concept or attractive décor will not get very far if the quality of the food and price are not up to par. All the more so as, constantly threatened with a twofold hike in rents every three years, restaurateurs cannot always afford to invest in costly interior design.
Back to simplicity and authenticity
No-frills meals to be shared by family or friends and restaurants where no reservations are needed are now all the rage. Two of the hottest eateries are Le Pain Quotidien and Classified cafés, which have no top chefs in the kitchen, and are finding success with “simple, authentic and affordable” fare and storytelling that appeals to the masses. At Le Pain Quotidien, what diners want to experience is a “fun, high-quality meal, at a shared table” at any time of day.
Classified cafés have been designed as “local” coffee shops. Located in the heart of traditional Chinese neighbourhoods rather than at impersonal shopping malls, they combine the restaurant and the workspace. The idea: to re-create the pleasant, warm atmosphere of the street in an open space that is perfect for having a conversation, with a European-style contemporary design. The menu features craft products such as cheese, home-baked bread, refined coffees and even take-out wine.
Authenticity and quality are also the keys to success for Grégoire Michaud, the artisan baker who opened his bakery-café in Wan Chai last year. His high-quality craft pastries and sourdough breads draw hoards of enthusiasts, as does the warm décor of the bakery, where customers can watch the bakers at work. People come here to experience and discover what goes on at a typical French bakery, and it works!
Young people want something new
The Millennial generation is always on the hunt for new discoveries. It fancies restaurants offering a product that is unique, easy to prepare and simple to eat: think poke bowls, Hong Kong waffles, Thai desserts and Japanese crepes. The quality is acceptable, the price affordable and, once the trend has faded out, consumers can move right on to the Next Big Thing. In search of places where they can socialise, as their parents’ home is generally too small and reserved for the family sphere, this Airbnb generation is increasingly turning to “third spaces” such as local cafés and restaurants to meet up with friends, study and use the Wi-Fi.
Starbucks was the first to understand that, more than just a product, it had to offer a service, an experience reflecting the values of the Millennials. If this experience is pleasing, it will be instantly published on Instagram!
With over 18,000 restaurants (source: Invest HK), Hong Kong’s food scene is today facing the huge challenge of reinventing itself. The process may well prove long and difficult, but the restaurant business has never been an easy affair.