Dynamic brother-sister restaurateurs Laura and Alexis Offe are the creative minds behind Meraki Hospitality Group, revitalising Hong Kong and Paris’ local food scenes with their unique dining concepts. Hive Life spoke with the two visionaries on their journey starting the group together, their multifaceted novel food concepts, and the extraordinary experience they deliver.
Laura and Alexis Offe grew up watching their parents thrive in the hospitality industry, and at quite a young age were exposed to the many joys and challenges that accompanied their careers, admiring the passion, endurance, and opportunities presented within the field. The two eventually decided to step over to the Food and Beverages (F&B) industry, opening their first unique restaurant concept, Uma Nota, ideally situated on Peel Street – Central’s foodie paradise.
The Brazilian-Japanese spot imbues the restaurateurs’ passion for vibrancy and originality, from its reimagined cuisine in its diverse tastes and flavours, to its lively atmosphere, the space was the genesis of their innovation.
Following the success of Uma Nota, they later went on to establish Meraki Hospitality Group in 2018, creating a community of like-minded locals, travellers, and their most cherished team through their multidimensional concepts. Ever since, Meraki has been committed to enriching and innovating culinary practices and traditions. Nothing short of an F&B revolution, their restaurants are the epitome of culture, good vibes, and extraordinary taste!
In a conversation with Hive Life, Laura and Alexis chat about their journey establishing their hospitality group, innovating in original food concepts, navigating their way through unprecedented challenges brought on by the pandemic, and how they are bringing Meraki’s iconic brand to Europe, starting with their home country, France.
Can you introduce yourselves?
Laura started off, “Alex and I are brother and sister. We grew up in Hong Kong and came from a family of hoteliers- our dad was a chef, later went into management throughout his career, and our mum was in the hospitality industry as well. It is something that we have always wanted to do, although our parents advised us against it at the beginning.
We both went to hospitality school, and I started my career at the Ritz-Carlton, later did a little stint at Four Seasons and Shangri-La, and then decided to come back to Hong Kong and open my own consultancy business, back in 2015, and that’s where the idea was born.”
Alexis followed, “It was the same at the beginning- I went to hotel school, and did some internships in big hotels. [However,] I didn’t have the impact that I thought I would, so, I preferred [to pursue my own path]. I worked for roughly two years with Black Sheep, learning and working with some of the best, until it was time for us to open our first restaurant.”
What inspired you to create your own brand, Meraki Hospitality Group?
Alexis initiated, “There are two things- the fact that we both grew up in and around restaurants, thanks to our parents’ jobs, and that they were travelling a lot when we were young.
Personally, I have a very vivid memory of me at Christmas with my family I was helping my dad with the service for the Christmas dinner and saw how happy people were with me serving them. [Knowing] what a good meal does to people and the stories that are shared at that moment, that clicked with me. That was the moment I told myself I will have a restaurant when I’m older.”
Laura added, “It was less of an epiphany for me, and more working for different groups. To me, I felt that I never really fit in; everything needed to be a certain way, and I am grateful for it all because I got to learn a great deal. So when we decided to open our own restaurant, we thought, how can we do things that are going to be different and a lot more inclusive?”
Could you introduce us to the concept behind Meraki?
We first opened Uma Nota in 2017, and did not actually have the group name in mind, but we really wanted to create a restaurant group that spoke with the way we work and so that is how we created Meraki Hospitality Group.
Meraki is actually a Greek word that means “to do something with soul, creativity, and love, and to put a little bit of yourself in everything that you do,” and that is how we always work, have worked, and hope to continue to work.
What kind of experiences do you aim to create for your customers?
I think big, five-star hotels sometimes lack a bit of authenticity or genuine [customer] relationship in a way, and this is what we try to have within our restaurants and concepts. We tell our teams all the time to form a genuine connection with whoever steps into the restaurant. First and foremost, we want people to feel comfortable, and that they want to come back because they feel welcomed for who they are.
Depending on the concept itself, it is to deliver something that is different and never heard of, especially in covid times, giving customers the feeling of travelling through the experience delivered, whether it’s on their plates or through storytelling.
How would you describe your work dynamic?
Alexis shared, “It works extremely well in the sense that, Laura has a lot more experience in some fields, and I have a little bit more in others. It naturally works out that I enjoy doing things that she does not enjoy as much, and vice versa.
I tend to be more on the concept development- I usually oversee all operations, hiring and the little touches within the concepts, whereas Laura has more of the lead on management itself, on the back end, finance, administration, Human Resources (HR), and marketing and communications, precisely.
There is no ego in the way we work and that is something that we try to have within our teams.”
What inspired you to set up Meraki in Hong Kong?
Laura: “Our parents are still here and when we finished hospitality school, Hong Kong was buzzing, and it was one of the most exciting F&B scenes.
I remember when we opened Uma Nota, we had people queueing up for two to three hours just to get a table, which was amazing. We are celebrating five years of Uma Nota this year, and think we did a pretty good job in order to make it this far.”
How would you describe Hong Kong’s hospitality culture, and what makes it so attractive?
The first thing is there’s a practical reason for it, space is very limited, and there is a simple need of eating out because nobody really knows how to cook.
Being such an international business hub, everybody wants quality restaurants, and it was time for Hong Kong to step up F&B compared to, New York, London, and Melbourne, in terms of quality of concepts.
How has Hong Kong’s street food culture inspired your restaurants?
Laura: “Street food is very big in Asia and in the Middle East, and then and when you go to Europe, for example, you don’t really have that. Street food here for us equates to comfort food, which reminds you of the cha chaan teng from around the corner that has been there for 50 years, which is the representation of the culture, city, or even the country.
If you taste street food in Asia, you get to taste the real food culture of that country. That is why we incorporated that in our concepts, and developed them.”
Can you introduce us to the concepts behind Uma Nota and Bedu?
Alexis started, “Uma Nota is a Brazilian Japanese restaurant and bar, which puts forward Japanese subculture in Brazil, specifically in São Paulo, where you have the biggest community outside of Japan. Japanese migrants influenced one part of this cuisine in Brazil.
That is the concept- showcasing the Japanese subculture in Brazil, its resilient cuisine, and its sharing style is very lively. The music element is also important and festive, and cocktails are a big part of the experience as well, and that is Uma Nota!”
Laura continued, “Bedu is a modern Middle Eastern restaurant, situated on. We wanted to create a restaurant that showcased Middle East cuisine but make it a little more palatable to local consumers and reinvent the traditional cuisine a little. Our chef has been reinventing traditional recipes and has been doing really well in Hong Kong, specifically during the pandemic, where you could only do takeaway. It got so popular that we decided to open Little Bedu, the takeaway only variation of Bedu.”
“Bedu is more food-focused, with an amazing chef and team behind it. It is slightly more upscale in the experience that we deliver, a little more discreet, for the celebration of an anniversary or date nights. The experience is very different, but the common thing is that we want to take care of each and every [customer] in the same way and have an authentic and genuine experience.” Alexis concluded.
What is the process behind introducing a new dining concept at Meraki?
Laure expressed, “We do not just create a concept that we like or something that we want to do for ourselves. Every time we create a new concept, we need it to speak to us, but we always look at a gap in the market, how we can target consumers, what are they going to be enjoying, and why would they come to our restaurants? We will always study all of these elements before we decide on the concept itself.”
Uma Nota’s sister branch is located in Paris- in what ways are the markets different?
“In both cities, people enjoy good food. French are big foodies but tend to not know other cuisines, especially from Asia or sometimes even South America. The main difference is the fact that when you eat in a French restaurant it is a more classic structure of a dining experience; something we had a struggle with at the beginning is educating the people about its sharing style. Whereas Hong Kong is very fast-paced, where you come and eat, and tend to leave to a bar or somewhere else,” answered Alexis.
Could you share more on your unique pop-up dining concept, Mamma Always Said?
“The idea was to have an even more laid back concept- we wanted to create a space where people could come in and not really have a fixed idea of what they wanted. It was a place where you would start your evening or end up spending your evening, where you would meet up with some friends.” Alexis said.
What were some of the effects of the pandemic on the F&B industry?
Laura replied, “It has been the toughest years for all of us- not only the F&B industry- but we were really the ones that got the hit most, specifically in Hong Kong. What it taught us was to constantly be ready to pivot and adapt. It has been a whirlwind, and we have been lucky to have such a strong team that has worked with us throughout these difficult times.
We are always ready to look at what we could do better, what we could change, or how to adapt the menus and services. We had to make certain important decisions that were not the easiest to make on how to maintain everyone’s employment and continue to work with amazing people, and we managed to do that.”
“As we had to scale, it makes you look at what do we need, and what do we not need, and only prioritise what needs to be done. The most important part was how we could downscale and work with what we have. We would love to have one year where we could just relax, but as business owners, that is nearly impossible,” Alexis added.
What advice would you give to fellow restaurant owners to preserve and grow their business during the pandemic?
Alexis shared, “It is easier said than done sometimes, but the most important thing is, you need to try as best as you can to maintain the quality of your concept, ingredients, or what makes it unique and special. Reward your regular customers because they are the ones that help us survive. Most importantly, taking good care of your employees, as at the end of the day, a team functions with the players, so you need extremely good people to deliver your experience and service.”
What does the future look like for Meraki Hospitality Group?
We are still convinced that Hong Kong will bounce back, and seeing our Uma Nota in Paris doing quite well, we want to continue expanding in Europe.
Europe is an obvious region where we would want to develop and also there is a huge market. [It] is really an exciting place right now and for the next couple of years, we are working on a few things in Europe which hopefully, we can unveil soon.
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