THE HEROES WE NEVER KNEW WE NEEDED
This portrait series is a celebration of the everyday heroes in this pandemic.
(Documented from a distance)
As part of our efforts to capture some of the impact of the coronavirus on Hong Kong’s F&B industry, we caught up with a number of friendly members of our community. We heard from chefs, restaurant owners, front of house and we were lucky enough to catch up with Larry Tang from Famaland.
Larry, how has the current situation affected you both on a professional and a personal level?
The virus?? I guess for HK the whole thing started in June last year with the protests. So a lot of decisions were made then and the biggest decision for me business wise was made back in May, as our lease was up, GOD (Goods of Desire) moved out next door, so we had either to leave or take over GOD’s space. We were so close to closing this place, as business wasn’t great and we needed more capital to expand but I still thought, it is gonna be hard for our people to get a job, so if we can keep running and keep the team working, let’s give it another chance.
Then the virus. You know I actually called it. I said to a few people at the time, 1966 was the biggest riot in HK in a Lee Ka Shing factory that used to produce plastic flowers and export internationally. The riot was worse than this one with the protests, but then what’s interesting is that this episode was followed by a big flu in 1968, that started in HK and then spread globally killing one million people worldwide.
There were a lot of businesses that started after the last flu, and lots of new opportunities (rent was cheaper, more solidarity within the community…), but unfortunately for us for now we had to move to no pay leave for everyone. We started with 2 days per week, and then when stricter measures from the government kicked in, we increased to 3 days no pay leave. It’s not a sustainable solution, as people are paid less and this can’t work on the long run. So I am trying to find other revenue streams to try to bounce back in terms of business.
Personally, in February I was very motivated to get healthy. After Kobe Bryant passed away, since we are born in the same year. Although I always been a Micheal Jordan fan, I looked Kobe up after he died and realised that we grew up in the same era and he was very determined and dedicated in life towards his passions, towards basketball.
You know, I used to play semi-professional basketball, I quit when I was 28 because I wanted to focus on work. But then Kobe Bryant passed and I reflected on the fact that life is so short and I should cherish it with a healthier lifestyle, so for the whole of February I was good!
‘Till March, when things got worse, they closed the gyms and the basketball courts…
On topic of closures, have the relief measures issued by the Government helped the situation?
I think the government policies that are suddenly introduced and are short term; those are hard to deal with… You look at it, 4 people max, 1.5 meters away, it’s still not a guarantee (you won’t get the virus), but they don’t want to shut everything down because they know if they do that they will have to help people by paying salaries and rent. So they don’t shut down restaurants but they do so many things to scare people that customers don’t want to come anyways.
Honestly I don’t even know if we want a lot of people to come into the restaurants right now anyway, because the more people come the higher the risk. Also for the restaurant team…. It only takes one person in the team to get it (the virus) and then everyone gets it.
Are you scared about the virus itself and having to come to work and being exposed everyday?
Personally no. Cause I am always very conscious about fear. I do whatever is in my control to manage the problem but I don’t want the fear to creep in and take control. Otherwise your energy changes and it affects everything else in your life.
I am more worried about my family and the people in my team. We used to do some great events when we launched Famaland every Friday night about two months ago. Then after people have a few drinks, they forget and they speak really loud and really close to each other, share drinks, touch everything… So I thought, what’s the point of doing these events? It’s not really for profit, and is it worth risking everyone’s life? So I thought let’s chill with the party style of events.
So what measures have you had to put in place in the operations and how have customers reacted?
I think we are in a better position than other places. Already a few months ago we set up Fama’s Kicthen which takes care of different delivery brands which we also manage. We are also offering a wellness menu here at Sohofama, designed with the help of a Chinese doctor, and that’s great to address this times’ demand.
In the restaurant we are now using paper, single-use, take-away containers to serve the food. Some people complained, but we’re like: “think about why we do it, it cost me more than to wash dishes”. Safety first, and then sustainability needs to be a more long term commitment, also we are not using plastic, it’s all paper, biodegradable stuff, it cost a lot!
The purpose of it was to change the whole serving flow to minimise contact: people have to get up, go order and then we give them a buzzer and then they go and pick up and take the take-away boxes outside at the table. Afterwards we throw it in the trash so at least we minimise contact.
Some guests complained so we’re now hanging a signage to really explain to customers why we are doing all this. For me it’s strange to see that online people talk about safety, wearing masks and all this but not a lot of people seem to care about boosting their immune system with healthy and wholesome foods. The most ordered item online is pizza!
While, for example, ever since I did my research on diet and food, when my dad had cancer (and recovered from it) I haven’t seen a doctor for so many years. I used to get a cold every month or every two months, it was normal. But now I pay so much attention on my immunity. Would I line up for masks or manuka honey? Definitely manuka honey. But no one talks about it.
Sounds like you are really passionate about the health side of things, are you vegetarian Larry?
No, I am not. But that’s a very good question because I still think that plant based diet is the final solution.
I do see vegan people as real life superheroes. If you love vegetables you’d call yourself vegetarian. If you go vegan you are making a statement, you are sacrificing for the fight against animal cruelty. So I want to support them and I want to make it easier for them. Also as we grow and scale I really don’t want to see us contributing to animal farming but it’s an expensive commitment. It was never a problem before, as we started both restaurants around 500 dollar p.p. price point, but within a year or two we started promoting cheaper dishes and trying to get our guests to spend an average of 280 per person. Which still allows us to use organic, wild-caught etc… even though the margins are very thin.
But now we are promoting more deliveries, we’re trying to lower the price point to HK$ 60-120 per meal. And to keep this sort of prices it’s almost impossible to use organic ingredients. But we always still choose hormone-free, antibiotic-free, pesticide-free, MSG-free. So not organic but still better!
So are the deliveries doing well?
Deliveries have gone up, but at the physical store level sales have gone so down that even with increased revenue from deliveries it’s nowhere near what it used to be. Restaurants can be such a bad business model (high labour, high maintenance, inflexible, low margins) that you kind of have to have other things to back it up. I think the current restaurant business model is very outdated, I still believe in food because everyone needs to eat 2/3 times a day and the average spend for food and drinks per month per person is HK$ 2,500. And we have over 7 million people in HK!! So we’re talking about HK$1.7/1.8 billion, a huge industry.
I prefer to call ourselves a food start up, not a restaurant, and I also want my team to think the same. The actual restaurant is only one part of the puzzle, but we also do customer acquisition, content, branding. Our team should be more flexible and work as restaurant operations but also be a resource for other sides of the business so that if customers don’t come in, the staff can work on other stuff instead of waiting around.
There’s already a few people in my team that I have nominated to help with our virtual brands (Fama’s Kitchen) and I share the profit with them. So they can learn how to run a food business online and earn money from it. We currently have a kitchen, 7 chefs, 6 cooking stations. One station is Chinese food, Western food, burgers, cold dishes etc…
So you come up with a menu, you do the marketing and branding and sell the products on Foodpanda. We take a small percentage, share the staff cost and this lowers everyone’s staff expenses from 30% to 10-15%.
We have one chef specialising in burgers and we can cook up to 3 different burger brands there. We have one of our own brands, and we cook for two other brands that don’t belong to our group.
And outside of the deliveries are you developing any other products or new initiatives ?
I am personally working for a menu for one room of the restaurant ‘The Living Canvas’ which will be completely plant-based and a bit more fine dining than our other menus. But I wanted it to look like “normal food” so I am considering using Impossible meat, and all those meat alternatives to make it happen. I believe the cruelty free angle and locally sourced products are more important than being organic. If things are locally sourced and you can go to the farmers and see how they grow the products, you don’t need the label “organic” to know that is good.
I also want to test it on myself and go through a transformation exercising and working out, building muscle mass but with a plant based diet. I always like to experiment on myself for new business choices.
So in the long term, as a group, we will go predominantly plant-based but we will still supply organic meat, wild-caught seafood but on a pre-order basis. On a retail level there will be less and less meat. But it needs to be a gradual process: so the first step is every item on our menu must have a vegetarian version and the moment we sell more of the vegetarian version than the meat version of the same dish, we take out the non-vegetarian item from the menu. That way it is not our choice – but it is the customer’s choice.
So any business owners who want to make big changes like this also need conscious consumers to support. I call it a “conscious consumer revolution”.
So what next after the virus?
Everyone is waiting for this “magical day” when the virus will be gone but, let’s think of it logically: Hong Kong is a very international city so the moment we open our borders we are open to more risk. So as long as the whole world is still going through the virus cycle we can’t relax here. We are talking about 12 months at least, until the whole world will get through it.
So rather than hope for the best we prepare for the worst. Which will be lockdown. So we are working on frozen packaged meals, delivered directly at home. Which is something that I always wanted to do. We also wanted to push sous vide cooking, we do all the prep and once the meal is with you, you just have to put it in your sous vide machine.
Longer term, I have a vision for the food industry and back in 2018 my partner and I gave ourselves the next 12 years to make it happen. We challenged ourselves to work towards some bigger goals for the food industry in 2030. For example, more than 90% of the food in HK is imported, as meat and seafood farming is very minimal in HK. Also how much meat we consume in HK is ridiculous. We have one of the highest meat consumptions per capita in the world at 664g/day/capita (equivalent to two pieces of 10-oz steak). Pork and beef consumption are the highest, with average daily consumption four times higher than the UK.
These are just examples of the many issues that are HK specific that I wrote down and want to address by 2030. And we also want to challenge other people in other industries and ask them “if you could change something by 2030 what would that be?”.
Check out other incredible People of the Pandemic stories around the world: