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Savvy Dining

Viviano Romito  

Viviano Romito, Director, Concept Creations, set up Hong Kong’s first Peruvian restaurant, Chicha

 

Restaurateur Viviano Romito says he fell off his seat when he heard Hong Kong lacked a Peruvian restaurant. He was certain the unique cuisine would be a hit in town. There was just one problem. 

"The flavours were all there," says Mr Romito, "but the portions weren't suitable for the market." Peruvian dishes are big, but in Hong Kong today, small is the word. 

So Chicha, like most popular casual dining venues in Central, built the menu around a tapas-style approach: small portions that can be shared among friends. "We want to provide a dining experience where you can have as much as you want and not just one dish; we try to provide all those dishes in one social dining experience." 

Variety, the ability to try many flavours, is part of the experience. But so is lightness, says Mr Romito. Diners are also looking for portions that don't fill them up and put an end to the night. 

 Hong Kong’s Chicha features a tapas-style approach to the Peruvian cuisine on offer
 

Hong Kong’s Chicha features a tapas-style approach to the Peruvian cuisine on offer

Andrew Li, Group Director of Operations for the Privé Group, which recently opened the gastrobar Common Room, says the small-focused menus are as much a reaction to customer's lifestyle as nightlife habits. "The trend in Hong Kong is towards people eating healthier and having less heavy meals, the last thing you want to do after going to the gym is have some massive meal," he says. 

Casual dining, with portions that match health-conscious young professionals, is another way that the generational shift is impacting the food business in Hong Kong. More food-savvy than their parents, cosmopolitan Hongkongers are willing to pay for quality food prepared their way. In this crowded market, however, quality alone is not enough. 

Conceptual Dining 

Anticuchos – beef heart marinated, skewered, and seared over the grill – is among the typical Peruvi 

Anticuchos – beef heart marinated, skewered and seared over the grill – is among the typical Peruvian fare served at Chicha

 
It’s something Mr Li learned running Casa, a lounge and restaurant that closed recently when it became clear the spot was seen by customers as just another nightlife hangout. 

"With Casa, we didn't really have an identity," says Mr Li. "We were a bit of everything. Nowadays in Hong Kong, you need to identify yourself. You need a clear concept." 

That’s the other word dominating the restaurant scene today. As slippery in dining as it is in art, “concept” stands for the experience customers can expect from an establishment. It's as much about décor and ambiance as food, even for a cuisine-focused restaurant like Chicha, says Mr Romito. 

"If you don't, you're one step behind. Everything has to have a story behind it. Just opening your doors and saying you're a certain kind of cuisine no longer has that much strength [in the market]." 

Hong Kong's restaurant market is flooded. The surge in food appreciation, and the new focus around social dining, has only intensified the competition. "Unless you have a concept where people say: 'Oh wow, this is different,' there is too much choice for them to come back to your establishment," says Mr Li. 

 Max von Poelnitz
 

Max von Poelnitz is working to expand the definition of dining through his home-delivery business venture Secret Ingredient

To remain competitive in Hong Kong, restaurants need their customers to do more than just come back. They need happy customers to push the brand on social media, including review sites. They are happy to do that, as long as there is an experience worth reporting explains Mr Romito. "It's a tough business to be in; you're going to make it harder on yourself if you don't put any heart of soul into the concept." 

A New Business 

Just down from the bustling bars and restaurants in Central’s Soho area, Max von Poelnitz  is working to expand the definition of dining. At Secret Ingredient, Mr von Poelnitz provides everything his customers need to prepare a great meal at home – from fresh meats to spices, seasonings, and of course, an exclusive, chef-designed recipe to follow. He's betting the same forces shaping the traditional restaurant industry – a focus on health, quality foods, and a genuine social experience – will help launch this new approach to dining in Hong Kong. 

Secret Ingredient provides everything customers need to prepare a tasty and healthy meal at home – f 

Secret Ingredient provides everything customers need to prepare a tasty and healthy meal at home – from fresh meats to spices, seasonings, and an exclusive, chef-designed recipe to follow

 
There are many things working against him. First, the model is not well understood by consumers. There is also a reluctance to buying fresh food products online. Mr Von Poelnitz says it's just a matter of time before thinking changes, however. 

"When we shop in Hong Kong, we're often paying the rent. We're not paying for the food." He argues that when people go to the supermarket, they are looking for convenient shopping and trustworthy source, and Secret Ingredient is trying to build both. 

At the moment it's mostly time-strapped young couples who use the service, but the owner’s forecasts are positive, with 10 per cent to 20 per cent month-on-month growth expected. His goal is to challenge the traditional delivery market by providing the quality standards most delivered foods lack. 

Mr von Poelnitz says he’s been contacted by entrepreneurs in other Asian cities, including Shanghai and Singapore, seeking advice on starting their own operation. He's happy to help. He would even encourage competitors in Hong Kong. "Why have high market share of a tiny industry when you can have a lower market share of a bigger industry?" he argues. "I think the fresh delivered food segment is here to stay."

Related Links
Chicha
Common Room
Secret Ingredient

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