Best friends and business partners Jérôme Spitzer and Olivier Caisson, the founders of French Creations, have spent a decade delivering French dining concepts to Asia, driven by a mutual love of the food of home.
As Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said, “Let us be more simple and less vain.” For two French entrepreneurs, it was just this maxim they took from their countryman when embarking on a career opening restaurants in Hong Kong. Jérôme Spitzer and Olivier Caisson, the pair behind F&B group French Creations, have spent a decade delivering unpretentious French food in a casual setting to a city whose previous notions of French dining were more about Michelin stars than they were about cool hangouts. Now, with nine ventures and a tenth, Café Bohéme, about to open in Kowloon, they talked Hive Life through how a lifelong passion for French food became a thriving business.
Jérôme and Olivier first opened their cult favourite bistro Pastis on Wyndham Street in 2009. Given its consistently packed tables today, the idea of it not being a success may seem far fetched now, but that wasn’t always the case. “Everybody was like, ‘It’s not going to work,’” Jérôme recalls. “They said that French casual dining had never worked in Hong Kong and it wasn’t going to.” But he and his business partner disagreed. “We thought the scene needed all sorts of cuisine, including simple, casual and down-to-earth food.” A place, as Olivier puts it, “where you can feel relaxed without paying the price of a Michelin starred restaurant.” Their hunch proved more than valid, as, ten years later, the pair oversee nine restaurants including underground bar Le Boudoir, Art Nouveau-Parisian bistro Metropolitain, French-American fusion place FAB and Tai Kwun’s hark back to Paris, Café Claudel.
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For both men, the whole concept is rooted in their lives back in France. As expats who arrived in Hong Kong in the early 2000s, they missed having a place to hang out and enjoy French food. “We created the restaurants to give that to the people,” he says. Pastis’s menu was based on recipes created by each of their mothers. “So, it was really a team of four,” says Jérôme.
The duo met through work. “Olivier was working for Frites, a restaurant group. I was supplying them with imported products from Spain,” says Jérôme. Coming from Paris, he explains that his friendship with Olivier, who is from Nice, would have been unlikely if they had both stayed in France. “But, being far from home can break boundaries. It’s great because we complete each other in terms of our culture and experience and our concepts are really a mix of our backgrounds.” Before he was born, Jérôme’s grandfather had a bistro in the countryside that became everyone’s go-to place after a day’s work in the village. Its frequent cameo in family stories shaped what restaurants mean to him today. “To me, a bistro is something that’s important for the community,” he says. Olivier’s mix of French and Italian heritage meant frequent and massive family gatherings in the kitchen and around the clay oven. “On Sundays, my Grandma would fill my empty plate and keep on feeding me,” he remembers. And, it’s just that sense of community built around food that they have now sought to deliver through their dining concepts.
Running a group of restaurants in Hong Kong has its own particular challenges – the major one being rent. For the ninth year running, the city has topped the charts for having the most expensive property prices in the world. “When your business is doing good, the landlord won’t be gentle with you. If you don’t have a solid base with the consumers, it’s hard to survive,” says Olivier. That’s why they have kept expanding, explains Jérôme. “We have to find new ways to keep developing and we can’t rely on one business. Because then, if the landlords increase the rent, we still have backups.”
Whilst they now have nine venues on their books with a tenth soon to follow, they say they have never followed a strict plan “We rarely come up with the concept first,” says Jérôme. “Usually, it’s down to the opportunity of a space or availability of talented individuals. Chain restaurants have too many boundaries.” At their upcoming Café Bohéme right in front of Kowloon’s M+ museum, they’ll be serving a mix of French, Italian and Mediterranean cuisine to resonate with the site’s views of the harbour. “After French, Italian cuisine is maybe our favourite,” Jérôme says. “The place will be very cosy and kid and pet-friendly. It’s really a family hangout spot,” explains Olivier. It all stays true to their original concept – and the factor they credit with their success: the relationship they have with each other. “Our advice for people who want to open successful restaurant is to find a good business partner,” Olivier smiles. “I just got engaged, and it is going to be a life changer. But I also thought that the last time I got engaged was 10 years ago and it was to Jérôme!”