Art & Culture - 11/12/18

Black Sheep’s Recipe for Success

Written by Christy C

Black Sheep Restaurants has grown from beginnings in one tapas house 6 years ago to a group that now owns 20 hotspots across Hong Kong. Here, find out how their underdog mentality helped them build a culinary empire.

When Hong Kong’s Syed Asim Hussain and Christopher Mark, founders of Black Sheep Restaurants, first ventured into their city’s F&B scene in 2012, they were seen as the underdogs. Six years later, the dynamic duo has built a culinary empire of twenty eateries that sit consistently at the top of the city’s must-visit lists. With concepts covering everything from a sizzling hot Japanese izakaya to a slice of Cantonese cool, an authentic Argentinian steakhouse to buzzing, Vietnamese street food-style fare, the pair are kings of their city’s restaurant scene. Read on to discover how they managed to pull it all off, and why, sometimes, you need to be the black sheep to succeed.

Hailing from different continents, Asim and Chris may have grown up on opposite sides of the world, but they shared childhoods in their respective family restaurants. “I was born and raised in Hong Kong but my family is originally from Pakistan,” says Asim. “My father was in the restaurant business, so I grew up in and around them. I went to university in the US, then worked in finance in New York, but I always knew I would be involved in the restaurant business – it’s in my blood and bones.” Chris grew up in Canada. “My grandfather was a restaurateur. I was always in and out of kitchens.” He started out training as a chef, moving to progressively bigger cities and jobs before settling in Hong Kong ten years ago.

Despite their shared interests, when the co-founders first met working at restaurant group Dining Concepts, they didn’t click immediately. “We didn’t have the best first impression of each other. Chris took one look at me and made a bet I wouldn’t be back the next day,” Asim recalls. “When I came back and he lost his bet, he marched over to let me know he’d lost money because of me!” Soon, however, they found common ground. “We both want to bring progress to the restaurant industry in Hong Kong,” says Chris. “Once we started talking, we had similar ideas about what was needed to do that.” Determined to shake things up from the start, they labelled themselves – and their group – as outsiders, something they have consistently seen as an asset rather than a curse. “Chris and I both view ourselves as black sheep,” says Asim. “It gives us licence to not accept preconceived notions. We can be unconventional, unapologetic and break the rules. We can adapt and change. It’s about doing things our way, not being afraid to rattle the cage.”

Hong Kong’s first experience of their way was found in Boqueira, their Spanish tapas restaurant that opened its doors in 2012. In a formula that has played out time and again in their openings, the duo took inspiration from a successful concept abroad (this time from the hotspot Boqueria in New York), and delivered it, complete with its own, distinct cultural identity, for the Hong Kong market. Just five months later, they launched Neapolitan pizzeria joint Motorino, again with a focus on authenticity. “We had already talked about opening a pizzeria. I went to Naples and trained with one of the world’s best pizza chefs, so when we found the right site, we jumped at the chance,” says Chris. And then they were off. “We knew we wanted to open more than one restaurant, that was always the plan from the beginning. Plus, we were bored of just eating Spanish food! There’s more to life than tortillas,” he laughs.

Six years on, the pair have rolled out everything from a burger joint to a high-end Argentinian steakhouse, the speciality Indian restaurant New Punjab Club to a Vietnamese, street-food inspired hotspot, a Lebanese cafe and so many more. Each and every opening is entirely distinct. “The biggest successes we’ve had come from taking the biggest risks,” says Chris. “When we opened Ho Lee Fook, we got really bad reviews in local media. People thought, ‘why are these guys opening a Cantonese restaurant in a city full of them?’” Four years on (practically a decade, in Hong Kong restaurant-time,) Ho Lee Fook is still one of the hottest Chinese restaurants in town.

Asim attributes this success to their risk-taking mentality. “Restaurants are an artform,” he says. “It’s important when you express your work that it’s personal, and not to change course. You have to stick to your guns.” This is why Black Sheep’s concepts are all conceptualised around the founders’ personal wells of nostalgia, childhood memories or past work and travel experiences. “There is usually a trip that sparks an idea for a new restaurant,” he explains. Their French Vietnamese bistro Chôm Chôm is a case in point. “Chris and I went to Hanoi to research an idea. We booked dinners every evening in beautiful old colonial places but just didn’t feel inspired. Each night we would then regroup on plastic stools with glasses of beer at the bia hoi stand on the corner near our hotel. One night, the owner invited us into his home and, despite not having much language in common, we stayed up until the small hours with him drinking and eating too much. At around 6 AM, Chris announced, ‘this is the story we’ll take back to our city.’ That experience ultimately became Chôm Chôm.”

Rampant growth aside, Chris and Asim are adamant they won’t take a back seat moving forward. “Presence is a big part of our work and a big part of our success,” says Asim. “We have a world class team, but we will always be on the front line and I don’t see this changing. There’s a lot of synergy in our relationship – the sum of us is greater than the parts.” That synergy is still propelling them forward. They have just planted their first overseas concept Canton Disco in Shanghai’s EDITION Hotel with more international expansion to come. Alongside that, they’re focused on shoring up their now very large Black Sheep community. “Just recently we formalised the way in which we offer support to our team members by introducing the Family Fund. Team members can get financial support from the fund which comes from donations from the team and a percentage of group sales. It’s all part of maintaining a sustainable community,” says Asim.

In the future, the pair hope they will have built a business that long outlasts the lifespan of your average Hong Kong hotspot. “We don’t want to create flash-in-the-pan concepts,” says Chris. “In a city that’s obsessed with newness and turnover, we want to build things that stand the test of time,” enforces Asim. And they’re determined to keep doing it with their signature brand of black sheep, outsider-thinking. “We started out as the underdogs, and we need to maintain that mentality and turn up every day ready to fight,” he continues. “That way, we can overcome whatever challenges come our way.”

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