When you walk into a restaurant, what do you notice most? Maybe you have issues with the decor, or the menu design, and you think, "Oh, my Gaaawwwddd, how hard would it be to just IKEA this shit nicely?" right?
Ever known an architect? Or an interior designer? How much do they earn? Ever gone to buy fancy light fixtures? Or even bar stools or custom photo frames? Now consider doing all that within a super tight budget and with what may well be money you later regret spending!
Well, you could try to figure how much the rent is for any given space, knowing how rent is in Hong Kong, first...maybe, lets say, 80K...hypothetically....then figure how many staff they have, you may only see 3, but more will be in the kitchen, still more will not have come on shift yet...so lets imagine a nice round number for a small place is about 10 staff. Lets assume they are each paid the same wage and its a fair one, so lets go for somewhere between 15-25K, which really is quite a broad average, but ok, lets assume.
That makes salaries anywhere between 150K and 250K a month, and don't forget to add on the MPF contributions for them, the insurance for the shop to ensure everyone is covered in house if there is some insane fire or the building falls to the ground. Then you got electricity, you do the math on how much your apartment electric bill is like in the summer, and then multiply that by about 8 to 10...and depending on the size of your apartment, maybe you can just double it...some people live in nice sized apartments here in Hong Kong.
Then maybe consider your budget for food costing on top of that, aiming to plan for at least 100 covers a day. Which is very small really, but its realistic if you think how many seats the place has, how many times you see those seats change over. (You will see where I am going with this).
Now do the math on the average price of a meal there, and figure out how many meals that particular restaurant needs to sell in order to break even, even on your most conservative guess or your wildest guess.
Margins in FnB are pretty tight. You have one month with holidays and it brings you right back to where you started, then you have three good months, and it is supposed to carry you three other shit ones. This is very much the same with weeks and days...in the past, Friday and Saturday carried us through the week, it would help pad the week up, and over the last few months, the weekends have becomes, at times, worse than weekdays. So you can figure how this is for not just our place but for all restaurants in the same position.
Its no wonder that the Li Ka Shing Foundation has considered this and is generously pledging money towards small businesses in FnB. When you think about how government rates have gone up after they stopped subsidies, when you consider the cost of electricity, the cost of water, gas, and manpower, you will figure out exactly how asking for something you think is "cheap" for free, isn't actually free for the restaurant.
You will genuinely not take more than you need, you won't waste usage of the cutlery or the napkins, you will think twice to ask for something extra without offering to pay for it. Many times we get asked about substituting something for another, which is cool, we are happy to help when we can, but sometimes people don't get that one thing costs more, maybe not simply in ingredients, but in manpower, and what looks like a tablespoon of it, still has an intrinsic value.
When we started, none of it mattered because none of it made sense. I was so new to it all, I have had to learn everything the hard way. Its also phenomenal how easy it is to go from the ups to the downs and right back up again, and the only thing you can count on is that life will be unpredictable.
What else costs money? Paper bags, napkins, toilet paper, cleaning products, meeting the MOQ on every suppliers list, laundry, dishwasher rental, more cleaning products, packaging, more packaging, breakage of crockery, condiments, spices, and on and on...
If you take a napkin to your table, we have to throw it away after, even if it looks untouched...its purely a matter of hygiene. Same with forks, spoons, knives...it has to be washed even if you haven't used it, purely coz you took it to your table. More washing needed.
We talk about zero waste and sustainability, it comes down to every last choice and it can be exhausting. Like, isn't it good enough I went vegan, dagnammit? Lol.
So sometimes I have to step back from the guilt of running a restaurant and try to figure out the balance of the good it serves vs the carbon footprint of its existence. We are still working with a much smaller carbon footprint, but the longer I operate the more I notice the flaws in the system and I am constantly considering how I would do it differently the next time.
I am happy, learning as I go, we all are, as a team. And I know, what we do, its good, it just costs so much money and I wish more people knew this before they decide to underestimate the cost. Its about knowing each seat has an intrinsic value and a time stamp on it.
I remember my husband and I sitting in a ramen shop in a Tokyo suburb once, we had ordered a ramen and a beer. Once we were done with our ramen, we were sipping our beer and talking, you know, like people do, just chatting. The owner leaned in and said, "Excuse me, this isn't a bar, please, finish and you can leave." Super polite, but quite clear.
You can imagine what went through our minds, the place was empty except for us. That said...sometimes I get what he's saying. Not the exact thing, but sometimes when people try to bag spread or sit on a computer with only a coffee for hours, that can kinda make my eye twitch and I lean inwards much like that Japanese ramen shop owner, and I don't say what he did, but I certainly feel like he must have.
And of course, this brings me to the final thought I wish people would think.
How many hours do you reckon your server works?
Not just waitstaff, but chefs, line cooks, prep cooks, the lot.
How many jobs do you think that one person holds?
What do you quantify as worthy of a service charge or tip? And if you are billed service charge, do you check to see if it goes to the staff? The number of times we see big groups who expect service and even praise it, then leave not a single cent as a tip. Astonishing.
Some staff hold down two, maybe three jobs. They may have small kids who ensure they sleep shit at night. They may live a whole hour and a half commute away because this was the best paying job they could get.
So when you treat service staff like crap, know that you actually have no idea how long that persons day has been, how small their apartment may be, how many household members they are supporting, and how they carry all that along when serving with a smile. Some may not serve with a smile, some may be well spent on service altogether, lol, but know that there is only one thing you can be sure of, you actually don't know.
The people I have seen who have been the kindest and most helpful, regardless of their current prosperity in life, have been those who grew up helping parents who owned restaurants. There is a quiet pride in their eyes, for you, like, legitimately, they take pride in seeing you succeed while running an independently owned restaurant, purely because they know the life. I see them, lookin at me, saying, "You got this!" all unspoken, I see it.
I suppose there is something to be said about helping your parents clean grease traps and ventilation hoods coz you are small enough to get in there! My own son has had to learn the hard way what it takes to be the one picking up the slack in a running restaurant. I sat him down ages ago, "Son, I want you to KNOW, truly know what hard work is, so you will work hard to ensure you one day have an easy life!" Ha!
My husband grew up with dish washing jobs, and its why when I need extra help, he comes and helps me even though its way below his pay-grade, he gets it, he knows how hard it is and how much a team being strong matters.
I think it ought to be mandatory for all kids when graduating school, to do a job that involves service to others. Humility in the face of adversity. To learn what they are capable of, genuinely, I think working in old age homes, or FnB, or even doing military service, would shape a young mind and fortify one to be resilient as all hell!
You know how many kids have come through our door and simply didn't last? A lot. Unable to consider cleaning a toilet because it was beneath them, or clueless about how to sweep a floor or wash dishes. I was cooking meals for our family at 15, if my mum let me...they weren't good meals, but they were meals nonetheless.
So somehow, where in all the fray, as people sit on smart devices, connecting away, are they connecting the dots of what it all costs, economically, socially, sustainability wise...
I remember the days when they had Archie B's, a deli in Hong Kong which was located somewhere in Soho. Even back then, I would see the owners, slaving away, and I would be in awe! For me, it was as close as I could come to personally knowing superstars!
I kid you not.
Taco Loco was another one of their small restaurants...what an inspiration! Both places really are likely my original inspiration for a good, wholesome, no-nonsense place to eat. Where food made with love was key, and understanding that food has to taste good, mattered, dagnammit! Flavor, spice, devil in the detail!!! They had NY style deli items and pickled green tomatoes! Back then I was never a pastrami fan, but the pickled green tomatoes! Woah!
I loved the owners too, genuine people, kind, generous, and hopelessly overworked back when I knew them. Legends in my mind, hands down, absolute stars! My kid (who is 20, so not a kid anymore) STILL talks about our Sundays at their restaurant.
I've lived in Hong Kong a long time. I think this coming birthday will make the count about 30 years, give or take a few away, but I still say that is about right because even if I left, to Texas or Tokyo, I never really left.
My kids are born here, all three of them, so when people ask me where home is, this is it. Hong Kong is my home. And one day, somewhere else will be, maybe, coz really, the only reason I can afford to continue living here is because at least one of us in my marriage has a good paying job, and it ain't me! Lol.
I thank my husband regularly for being the awesome human he is, and mostly for affording me the opportunity to follow a dream, no matter how insane, and I express gratitude for his fortitude in enduring my dreams.
I truly am a lucky person. Lucky to have learned so much, lucky to be surrounded by kindness and generosity, and lucky to be alive. If I died tomorrow, I reckon I wouldn't even know, and I hope that someone somewhere will remember that I cooked a damn good meal for them...if that is my legacy, I will totally be happy with that!
My name's Lisa. I love to cook, I love to laugh, I love to write. I don't always believe I have the time for creating, and now I am going to work on simply going with the flow, with the food, the restaurant, the writing...and if I can, for one moment, spread a little joy along the way, well, its worth the effort.