In Hong Kong, success in the restaurant business doesn’t come easy.
Fortune favours those who have a competitive edge, entrepreneurial spirit, passion for cuisine and thick skin. While there isn’t one recipe for success, we spoke to two heavy hitters in our dining hub – Beckaly Franks, co-owner of grungy American-style bar The Pontiac, which has made Asia’s 50 Best Bars for the past four years and The World’s 50 Best Bars’ top 100 list twice, and Manuel Palacio, co-founder of Pirata Group, which runs casual-cool favourites including Pici, Chaiwala and the new Honjo and TMK – about what makes a long-lasting F&B business as they celebrate their fourth and fifth respective years in business.
We’ve come to the conclusion that consistency and remaining true to themselves are key factors in making their pursuits successful in an ever-changing industry. Congratulations, Beckaly and Manuel!
Has your business been affected by the recent protests in Hong Kong? How are you coping?
BF: As a community-driven bar, it would be impossible to say the protests haven’t affected us emotionally and fiscally. We are a bar that has and will continue to be here for the people, built to weather any storm and a safe haven regardless of the climate.
MP: Like any other business in Hong Kong, we have been affected, but thankfully we are lucky to continue even with the current situation, and only on days when protests take place, depending on the location of our venues [is our business affected]. We hope to carry on with our long-term vision, hoping we don’t need to make any short-term decisions with our current environment. Hong Kong is vibrant, and there is no doubt the city will get back to the way it was, why everybody had originally fallen in love with it.
You’ve hit on some great concepts that strike a chord with diners. How did you create these concepts?
BF: By building concepts that provides casual comfort and a factor of nostalgia. There is consistency in reliability.
MP: There isn’t a formula, but among our team we continuously bounce back ideas – some that are in the pipeline where we start imagining the type of restaurant we’d like to visit. My partner, Christian [Talpo], will focus on the design and mood, while I look at music, branding and operational standards for the team. In terms of the culinary side, we work closely with chefs. What Pirata has achieved is a team effort, focusing on a space we all love.
The average lifespan of a restaurant or bar in Hong Kong is pretty short. What is your marker for knowing that a business will last?
BF: Regulars are a good indication that the business is successful with legs for longevity. We are always observing and asking ourselves questions – are the guests having a good time, are their cheeks rich with smiles? How does this translate into a balanced financial structure? Is our business evolving with the times, whatever they may be? We must adapt to survive.
MP: Offering good service. We are only as good as our last service, dish and drink. Consistency and continual improvement are everything. If the service isn’t great, it doesn’t matter how good you’ve been for five years.
What have you learned in running a successful business in the F&B industry? What were the most important goals you had when you first started?
BF: Our initial goals were to create a culture, not a concept with a heavy foot on inclusivity and acceptance, and we’ve achieved this goal in spades.
MP: We must remain humble, as our luck could turn at every moment, with each day as a chance to improve. Our goals were and still are to make people happy by delivering the experiences they will remember. If we can touch a customer’s heart, then we did what we set out to achieve, and we must consistently improve this and work hard.
How have you been able to scale the concept and culture?
BF: The Pontiac has become quite a sturdy brand, and in that there is scalability. We are not only focused on what is happening on the ground, but where we can extend our brand and culture.
MP: Culture is something we are obsessed with. We want to be surrounded by people who identify themselves with common behaviour – those who are nice, work as a team and are positive. When it comes to making decisions, it’s simple – we try to be fast, light and focused.
What are the important success factors for your business?
BF: Knowing what your identity is and what you’re offering – value, experience, ambience, music, craft, luxury, rock ‘n’ roll or any combination of these factors. Know who you are and what you’re selling.
MP: The chance to learn, make mistakes and grow to ensure we have learned. We value people immensely and give everything we do our best shot. It might not be perfect, but making sure we do the best we can while delivering a consistent experience is key. This can be difficult because our business is more of an art than a science – every day is showtime.
What differentiates a good restaurant or bar from a great one?
BF: The details, from the bathroom wallpaper to wiping a smear off a pair of your guest’s sweaty sunglasses without them asking. At The Pontiac we even burn incense before every shift to set the intentions for a great night to come. It’s all in the details.
MP: Their people and what they believe in. Long-term versus short-term vision is important when we make decisions.
How have you effectively marketed The Pontiac and Pirata Group to stay on track with diners and regular bar-goers?
BF: We’ve been fortunate to derive organic success without pushing the marketing envelope. For four years, we’ve been featured on Asia’s 50 Best Bars and twice on The World’s 50 Best Bars in the top 100 list. We’ve travelled around Asia to reinforce our presence, and it’s a triumph that our outreach and demand have never been better. We are evolving, and we get excited about marketing in new ways. It’s a fun tool to amplify our voice.
MP: By focusing on one guest at a time. Christian and I are firm believers that there is no silver bullet or simple remedy for issues. You must care about every detail in your restaurant, and if you can do it better, you must do it better. When it comes to a great experience, there is no better marketing tool and no shortcuts.
Fruit tomato at Pirata Group’s Honjo
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