By Hans Ebert

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The sudden and very sad passing last week of well-known restaurateur Paul Buxton, who owned the popular restaurants The Doghouse and the iconic Bulldogs, has dragged many in this city’s hospitality trade into even worse doldrums. And who can blame them as too many struggle to go it alone, finding stumbling blocks at every turn- ridiculously escalating rents, over-supply versus customer demand and real dog-eat-dog rabid competition. It’s enough to make them wonder if the Fat Lady has sung, and how they might have taken the blows like Sinatra, but unlike Old Blue Eyes, they’re lying sideways- bruised and black and blue with no fairy godmother or angel investor in sight.

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Turning a profit twice a week- Friday and Saturday- and then making ends meet the rest of the week isn’t exactly a great business model. But, this is today’s Hong Kong’s F&B industry, and a very long time away to when dining out meant a choice of either Fernando’s Hideaway, Rigoletto’s, Chesa, or Cafe D’Amigo, and later on, Wyndham Street Thai with the very odd and mysterious Aussie couple who ran it- and then ran away with the dish, spoon and everything else- La Bodega across the road from it, and Post 97 with a Spaghetti House, Curry Pot and Casa Mexicana and Crazy Lawrence Marriott at The Front Page thrown into the mix.

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With all this gloom and doom clouding the thoughts of many, this might be the time to shrug off that cloak of negativity, sing, Scaramouch, Scaramouch, Do The Fandango, and look, firstly, at Maximal Concepts and their recipes for success. It might serve as a much needed dish of Inspiration.

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Under their business umbrella are the excellent and no frills, but just simple quality-based Fish&Meat, the award-winning Blue Butcher, The Brickhouse, the fabulous upmarket Chinese restaurant Mott 32, the new and very cool whiskey bar called Stockton’s, Limewood in Repulse Bay, and the recently-opened ME, sponsored by Mercedes Benz, and appealing to the narcissist in all of us who believes that if you have it, you can’t take it with you, so flaunt it, baby, while you can.

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Maximal Concepts- it also owns Flawless, the Beauty Specialists- has a very clearly-defined business model aimed at the more affluent customer, their roller deck must be extensive, and they ensure that God is in the details. The devil only pops up when your chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Maximal Concepts doesn’t have any.

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If willing to dine very well in exceptionally well-designed surroundings that add to the atmosphere, and where, like some of our leading personalities in horse racing who are regulars of their various establishments, you don’t care about double/checking the bill, you really won’t go wrong with any of the products under this group- a group that is a brand in what is, let’s face it, a brand conscious city.

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On the subject of brands and restaurant groups, another that’s leading the pack is Castelo Concepts that began in 1992 as an idea by founder and Aussie Wayne Parfitt to cater to the needs of largely the expats living in the then former fishing village of Sai Kung. The first step towards meeting this objective began with the opening of Pepperoni’s, a 20-seat pizza and pasta restaurant. You gotta start somewhere. It’s what you do from this starting point.

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Today, the group’s flagship restaurant is Wagyu in Wyndham Street. Again, perception is ninety percent of reality, and the spacious and inviting Wagyu is an extremely strong magnet for what is largely an expat clientele including, yes, again, some of our leading jockeys. The menu might not exactly be creative- steaks, pastas, burgers (and exceptional French Fries), seafood dishes made from fresh- what else?- Barramundi etc, but, sometimes, that’s all one wants. Nothing fancy, but only those bare necessities that Baloo sang about in Jungle Book.

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Other bars and restaurants owned and operated by this group include the Jaspas brand, Wagyu Lounge in Old Bailey Street, Oolaa, High Street Grill, K-Town Bar and Grill, Missy Ho in Kennedy Town, outlets in Discovery Bay, Jaspas Boat Cruises, and a number of restaurants in Vietnam. What each has going for them is this: No surprises. One goes back for return visits for more of the same, and not because the chef has had an Eureka moment and decided to serve your steak with a combination of a mustard and wasabi sauce. Leave all that to all those “confusion chefs” who must have some pretty wild dreams. Ever wondered what chefs dream about? Just asking.

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When it does, however, come to fusion cuisine- Chinese fusion cuisine- one of the very best is Chef Jowett Yu at Ho Lee Fook, an excellent restaurant to dine on dishes that are adventurous- the daily seafood creations simply don’t go wrong- along with traditional Spring Rolls, Roasted Pork Belly and Steamed Seafood Dumplings.

Hugely popular with Hong Kong’s yuppie and chuppie crowd, who are not afraid to open their wallets, Ho Lee Fook, named by those Delay No More boys at g.o.d- Goods Of Desire- is, again, a restaurant that belongs to a group- Syed Asim Hussain’s successful Black Sheep Group- that includes the popular Chom Chom, Le Vache, Boqueria, Carbone and a personal favourite in Circus Burgers.

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Whether through a clearly defined business strategy or the vibe of their restaurants, the clientele they attract is very different to those of the groups mentioned earlier- younger, far more International and Eurasian- and, again, upwardly mobile and who travel in packs with a swagger that oozes confidence. It’s the look of Cosmopolitan Young Hong Kong. It’s an attractive look. Nothing at all wrong with Eurasian Pride and Power.

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Though the above stories mention the success of different groups in Hong Kong’s F&B industry, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the vision for these accomplishments have always come from individuals and teamwork. It’s part of that Hong Kong “Can Do” spirit many gibber on about, but where all too often, “Can Do” becomes “Won’t Do” because, just maybe, many who look and wonder why this type of success has eluded them ask, “Am I done?” Of course not.

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There are hundreds of local success stories that started- and continue today- without big groups behind them- success stories dependent only on human resolve and making dreams come true. Jeez, I feel a song by Journey coming on and a great deal of “Glee”.

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For myself, a great life lesson came when working in advertising and meeting a future client who was told he was “stupid” for trying to sell hamburgers to the Chinese in Hong Kong because “they only eat rice”.

That “stupid” person was Daniel Ng, a former aeronautical engineer for NASA, who bought the McDonald’s franchise for Hong Kong and Mainland China- and for a pittance.

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The rest as they say is history. It’s also incredibly inspiring to have been part of that particular Mr Toad’s Wild Ride, and the lessons a then-young creative director learnt along the way from the wisest man he has known- and who remains an inspiration though no longer here with us.

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