At just 29 years old, James Ward set himself the ambitious goal of establishing his first venture before turning 30. The newly opened Middle-Eastern restaurant Francis is the result. Here, he talks us through how he did it.
Having lived in Hong Kong for over six years, James Ward is no stranger to the city’s teeming F&B scene. In fact, the entrepreneur boasts an impressive resume featuring well-known hotel and restaurant groups such as Devere, Malmaison, Aqua, and Le Comptoir. Read on to learn how James took that experience and used it to open his new and first business, the popular Middle-Eastern haunt FRANCIS.
In January 2018, James Ward co-founded FRANCIS alongside chef Asher Goldstein and sommelier Simone Sammuri. Spotting a gap in the market, the three restaurateurs decided to focus on dishes hailing from Tel Aviv, the region where Asher, the head chef, grew up. With a clever mix of classic dishes and changing specials, the restaurant has quickly found a steadfast group of fans. “No two weeks are the same,” says James, “and the same can be said for the wine list.”
Prior to coming to Hong Kong, British-born James was busy pursuing a career in the hospitality industry, working first with the hospitality group, De Vere and then with hotel group Malmaison as part of a three-year management programme, only to then realise that hotel-life wasn’t for him. From there, he went on to join the Aqua group which happily brought him to Hong Kong in 2011. It wasn’t long, however, before he set himself a new goal: ‘James,’ he thought, ‘you’re gonna be 30 this year. Open something before you’re 30.’ And he did.
“For me, Hong Kong was the obvious choice,” he explains of his first venture. “It’s a city that welcomes innovation, and there’s certainly a lot of surplus cash. When it comes to finding investors to help you realise your dream, it’s relatively straightforward.” Given Hong Kong’s size, the fact that word travels fast only helps a business like FRANCIS. The best form of advertising, according to James, is word of mouth.
When it came to picking a cuisine, James had six concepts in mind. Given Hong Kong people’s proclivity towards dining out, the pressure was on to serve up dishes that you couldn’t find just two doors down. Sales-wise, their most popular dish has proven to be the Middle Eastern stand-out hummus. Chef Asher keeps his very classic — chickpeas, tahini, lemon, and garlic. It’s the dish they make a habit of recommending at the start, alongside their homemade pita (they roll out a staggering 300 pitas, in-house, every day). James’s favourite dish, the smoked carrot, is the very reason why he wanted to collaborate with Asher. James explains, “First he smokes the carrots, then he roasts them with a spiced honey, and serves them with an almond cream. Number one, it’s super healthy — a vegan dish. Number two, I love when chefs can take such a humble ingredient and make it delicious.” Other dishes that have proven extremely popular include the remarkably flavourful baked halloumi, their veal cigars and their mighty kafta.
Regardless of the many advantages of opening a business, there were, of course, also challenges along the way. Finding a venue took the young entrepreneur eight months. He explains, “generally the venues that I did see were the venues that nobody else wanted. Now big landlords don’t even put the property on the market — they approach operators first. People looked at me and they saw a 30-year-old guy with little pedigree.” And then there was the problem of staffing. Unsociable hours and low pay are typical of the hospitality industry, rendering it an unattractive industry. James remarks, “People come for six months and then just disappear. There are too many restaurants now with not enough staff. They come to work, they take their paycheck, and they have no aspirations to make a career out of it – it’s just a job.”
Despite these challenges, James is anything but lacking in motivation and pride. He says, “The moment that you lose sight and become purely money driven is where you shut yourself down. There’s nothing better than a guest saying that the service was fantastic, or how much they loved our wine selection, or even better if they come back two-three days later. I’ve had some guests that have come three or four times already in a single week for lunch. I can’t ask for a better motivator than this.” When you take into consideration the authentic food and their very reasonably priced wine menu, priced at either HKD 350 or HKD 600 a bottle, it’s no wonder people keep returning to this cosy neighbourhood restaurant.
When asked about what advice he would give to budding restaurateurs, James answered, “Don’t rush your way to the top. You start at the bottom to learn all the basics of the operation. You need to gain the perspective of your staff and understand what they’re doing day-in-day-out.” On any trading day, you’ll find James and his team bustling around the swarming restaurant, eagerly attending to every individual’s need. You don’t want to miss out on Hong Kong’s latest obsession.
4 – 6 St Francis Street, Wan Chai, Hong Kong