We talk to Manuel Palacio and Christian Talpo as they laugh their way through the story of how Pirata Group, one of Hong Kong’s hottest F&B companies stumbled into existence thanks to a wild party and some good, old-fashioned hard work.
In just four short years, Pirata Group’s co-founders Manuel Palacio and Christian Talpo have transformed one restaurant into a diverse monopoly of eleven must-visit eateries in Hong Kong’s most happening districts. Beginning as strangers in Europe, the two forged a culinary brotherhood thanks to a party in Hong Kong in 2012. We sat down with the duo as they took us on their journey from teenage dishwashers to household names in Hong Kong’s dining game.
Dropping out of school at 15, Manuel and Christian both began their careers in F&B at the bottom of the restaurant food chain. Christian left his home in Italy just after his twentieth birthday, working in Wan Chai’s Grand Hyatt to gain experience and learn a bit of English – plus, surprisingly, a little bit of his own culture: “I am Italian and have lived in Italy for 20 years but this was the first time I had heard of Fettuccine Alfredo!” Manuel, having accepted that his dream of becoming a Spanish rapper was probably ambitious, spent seven years in the restaurant trade in the UK, before moving to Hong Kong in 2012 where he was heading up project operations for Aqua Group’s restaurant Armani Bar. There, he met Christian, then the group’s COO.
The potential to become business partners materialised when they threw a party at Armani together. “We threw one of the craziest parties Central has ever had. Manuel built three swimming pools on the terrace! He stripped down to his shorts and jumped in the pool, took a picture in the sunshine with a G&T and invited everyone to come to a beach party.” Unsurprisingly, the Hong Kong crowds came running and with them, an influx of money that had to be explained to Armani’s chief accountant. Christian recounts, “I was mid-sentence when he stopped me and said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m going to get to the bottom of this. You guys are pirates, you are up to something.”
And so, their venture the Pirata Group was born, with the duo opening their first Italian restaurant of the same name in 2014. “It always sounds easy, but there is an insane amount of work behind the scenes,” says Christian of getting that first location off the ground. “I had taken out a big loan from the bank, Manuel put in everything he had, plus working for a year practically for free – we invested everything. To make a name for ourselves, we spent very little time behind a computer and a lot of time dealing with our guests. That’s how we built our business – one table and one day at a time.”
Just six months on, they had a hotspot on their hands. Hungry for the next, the two locked themselves in a coffee shop until they had a full proposal to take to the landlord of an empty lot in Pirata’s building. “We won the space. As we were walking out of the office, high-fiving and cheering, it suddenly dawned on us – we had to come up with a million US dollars within a week. We didn’t have a penny in our pockets at this stage, so we were really just riding on liquefied optimism, which is why we called it The Optimist.”
Whilst Pirata was their first baby, their Northern Spanish restaurant, The Optimist, not far from the Hive Wan Chai, was “the problem child that grew up to be a very strong adult after a stupid amount of love and passion.” Manuel tells us, “We almost went broke because we went from 25 – 30 staff to 70 – 75 overnight. This was with no HR, no accountant and no back office. We didn’t even have time to sit down and think because we were too busy trying to survive.”
Today, the group has 275 staff spanning their eleven restaurants across Hong Kong, soon to be 300 with the opening of more. Other openings include Tokyolima, three Pici restaurants, MEATS, Chifa, Madame Ching, Hugger Mugger, Chaiwala, and event space, The Loft. “We’re not following any trends or fashion; we’re just doing concepts that we love,” says Manuel. “We build restaurants that we would want to eat in, where people can have lots of fun. It’s loud, it’s rowdy, trendy but not too expensive.”
As for the future, Christian jokes, “A G&T on the beach would be nice!” However, with plans to expand their pasta bar Pici to Barcelona as a foothold for further European expansion, it looks a way off. “I think the measure of success is being able to choose a place and a time to work,” he elaborates. “You know what they say: do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. We want to get to a point that we really love what we do – and we’re not far off it right now.”