RECIPE FOR SUCCESS.
Yenn Wong tells Riva Hiranand about the growth of her F&B empire and why running a restaurant is like putting on a show.
For someone who is about to launch two new food and beverage concepts in just over a month’s time, Yenn Wong is remarkably relaxed when we meet in late March at Aberdeen Street Social, one of nine existing restaurants under her JIA Group umbrella. With an ever-growing portfolio, one wonders how Wong manages in an environment as harsh as Hong Kong’s restaurant industry. “We work on an opportunity basis. It’s about doing it at the right time and in the right places,” she says. “It’s not a very strategic move but that’s really how we’ve grown and it has worked well for us.”
One such opportunity came last year when Hongkong Land contacted Wong about opening a restaurant in Landmark. “It’s not normally what we do, so it was challenging to meet the balance of catering to an upscale Central market without losing the edginess of what we normally do,” Wong says of Mak Mak, which opened last December and specialises in central Thai cuisine.
“They gave us a difficult space,” admits Wong. “But ultimately it worked in our favour.” The lack of windows means the restaurant is fully enclosed, giving it a more intimate feel than your run-of-the-mill mall eatery. The concept, inspired by The Grand Budapest Hotel, sees diners enter the restaurant by pressing a bell to activate a hidden door that leads into a space that resembles a retro Thai grocery store.
Mak Mak’s position in a commercial space is vastly different from Wong’s other projects, in areas such as Ship Street in Wan Chai and Sai Ying Pun. “We always look for interesting locations – not just because we feel it’s fun for the concept, but rent is cheaper so we can spend more to deliver more to the customer instead of the landlord,” she says. JIA’s first restaurant, 208 Duecento Otto, opened in 2010 at the very end of Hollywood Road. “At the time, there was nothing there except coffin stores and provision shops. My friends thought I was crazy!” Wong says, laughing. But Sheung Wan is booming now, as are the other locations JIA has chosen such as Ship Street, home to Spanish tapas bar 22 Ships and restaurant Ham & Sherry.
Wong cut her teeth in the hospitality industry when she moved to Hong Kong at the age of 24. Her career began when her family purchased a building, which later became the Philippe Starck-designed boutique hotel JIA Hong Kong. “At the time boutique hotels didn’t exist,” Wong says, referring to JIA’s opening in 2004, when Hong Kong was in the midst of recovering from SARS and the economic crisis. “The landscape was monopolised by five-star hotels.” JIA’s concept was well received, with another location opening in Shanghai in 2007. But both hotels were eventually bought out and rebranded by other companies.
Wong’s plans to return to the hotel business have taken an interesting turn, as JIA has announced it will open a youth hostel in Sham Shui Po in the next few years. With Thomas Heatherwick as the architect, she hopes to engage the local community and provide jobs for the underprivileged in the area. “I want to do more than just open something. I want to include the community and create jobs and opportunities for the people there,” she says. “Coming from Singapore, I find the poverty in Hong Kong and the way the poor live to be shocking. The government isn’t doing enough.”
For now, the 37-year-old hospitality maven is determined to focus on strengthening her existing restaurants, while also developing new projects. “I always say running a restaurant is like putting on a show. Customers are affluent here – they give you one chance, and that’s where you succeed or fail. And it’s easy to fail in Hong Kong,” Wong says. One challenge she constantly faces is establishing and maintaining consistency. “The F&B industry moves so fast here. You can’t just ride off your success. We work our asses off to make sure people will be excited about the concept, but also constantly build consistency so customers can expect a level of quality and trust us.”
An aspect of the business that Wong dislikes is people management. “It’s a people business, and people have different characters and moods, which is why we nurture our staff so they can grow within the company.” Wong has partnered with husband Alan Lo for gallery-slash-restaurant Duddell’s, which opened in 2013. “It’s great because we both understand what we deal with on a day-to-day basis without saying much,” she says. “We work differently, though – Alan is more visionary, whereas I am a control freak! But it’s nice to work together.”
JIA has also partnered with notable chefs such as Jason Atherton and David Lai of Neighborhood and is committed to fostering the growth of its staff. “We run like a small family. We have a flat hierarchy, so everyone is free to share their comments and concerns, and it’s important that they can look at this as more than just a job,” Wong says as she takes a sip of coffee.
Nathan Green, executive chef at 22 Ships and Ham & Sherry, has partnered with Wong and her team for Rhoda, which will open next month in Sai Wan Ho. “Nathan always talks about his grandma and his family is growing so the concept of family-style dining is close to his heart,” explains Wong. The restaurant will focus on down-to-earth food with locally sourced ingredients and a daily-changing menu to be shared and enjoyed in a casual space. “It’s his modern interpretation of comfort food. People want to enjoy their meals and not be so caught up with concepts. It’s great food that doesn’t break the bank, and simple food that evokes emotions,” she says.
Also set to open this month is Potato Head, the renowned Bali-based beach club, which will be situated not on Hong Kong’s beachfront but in Sai Ying Pun. Potato Head Hong Kong will comprise a retail space, tropical bar, coffee bar and Indonesian restaurant as well as an events space. “We rarely bring brands in but we got on so well and had so much fun,” Wong says. “They have a vision very similar to ours.”
Managing a vast array of concepts and cuisines, Wong cites travel as her main inspiration. Her speech, peppered with lah’s, is a telltale sign of her Singaporean background. But would she consider opening a Singaporean restaurant? “Everyone asks me that!” she groans. “I mean, I would love to but my fear is not delivering the most authentic Singaporean food possible. It’s a difficult cuisine to narrow down – we go to different stalls to eat one type of food, so how do you make sure that a restaurant with so much variety is good across the board?”
Despite the constant challenges that come with running a restaurant group, Wong insists she doesn’t need downtime. “I don’t feel the need to unwind despite the everyday drama. I enjoy what I do and I’m passionate about it,” she says. “My flexible schedule means I can take my son to playgroup. To be honest, that’s probably more stressful than [managing] the restaurants…”