How One Brother-and-Sister Duo Shaped Hong Kongs Dining Landscape
October 17, 2016
If you’ve lived in Hong Kong for a while, you’ve probably come across at least one of the restaurant ventures of Candice Suen Sieber and Aaron Suen. With Triple O’s, Yo Mama, Ciao Chow, Panino Giusto and now Grom in their stable of eateries, the brother-and-sister duo have their fingers in many of Hong Kong’s delicious pies.
“There was no real plan,” says Suen Sieber, who has lived in Hong Kong for a number of years. “We just, kind of, fell into it – except for Triple O’s, because we grew up with it in Vancouver – but everything else we discovered on our travels. For Panino Giusto, Aaron was in Sardinia on vacation and he mentioned this panini place. The way we vet it is, if you want to go back the next day and you don’t know why, that’s when people get hooked.”
With their finger on Hong Kong’s throbbing pulse, the siblings have a reputation for being ahead of the curve. They have made themselves a name by introducing cool and hip brands and concepts, often being the first in Asia to launch a novel trend, such as burgers, frozen yogurt, superior sandwiches and, recently, gelato.
“If there is a void in this market, we, kind of, see that immediately, like with the burgers,” says Suen, who spends most of his time in Los Angeles and comes to Hong Kong for openings and other important events. “There wasn’t really any great burger in Hong Kong and I remember people commenting, ‘How are you going to charge a burger two to three times more than McDonald’s? You’re going to fail. Have fun. Good luck.’ Yo Mama also took off when we launched on Star Street and, the same thing, sandwich-wise. Back then, there was Pret A Manger and all they had were premium sandwiches. I remember going into a meeting and thinking, what sandwich can I grab and go?
“When we pitched it to IFC, they said, ‘You’re selling a HK$100 sandwich? We have Pret and we are selling them for HK$40. Are you sure you are going to make money?’ We kept on insisting, but at first they said no.”
Once a groundbreaking eatery opens, competitors tend to jump on the bandwagon in the hope of making a quick buck. That hasn’t stopped the siblings from fearlessly cutting a trailblazing path through Hong Kong’s food scene. “It keeps us more competitive, but it doesn’t affect our business. We have some loyal clientele,” Suen says of last year’s burger craze, when a number of new restaurants opened, offering their burgers at twice the price. “It just pushes us to stay on our toes and keep re-branding, keep up with new specials,” he says. “Knowing where we are,” Suen Sieber chimes in, “we aren’t going to say that we are suddenly going to do a foie gras burger. We know where we’re at.”
Bite, the umbrella company for their eateries, is a family-run business that favours casual, welcoming and comfortable places to dine over high-end restaurants. That the compant exists is thanks to the duo’s mother, who was in real estate and found them their first premises in Pacific Place. She knew the owner of the Triple O’s space through her business connections.
“We’re family, so it’s a shared kind of thing,” Suen Sieber says. “There’s no, ‘I do more work than you and you do more work than me’.”
She calls her brother a “visionary” and says he is the creative force behind the company. She says she is in charge of operations and crunching the numbers, and perhaps isn’t the most gifted chef in the family. By her own admission, cooking anything more adventurous than an a boiled egg is a challenge.
The siblings are deeply engaged at every stage of the business, from the back to front and top to bottom. “For every franchise, we always go through the training,” she says. “We went to Milan, making paninis for two weeks in their kitchen.” In trying to better understand the burger business, the duo also went behind the scenes. “It was funny,” she says. “We worked in the shop, grilling burgers and serving people, dropping burgers and running away because we got scared.”
The duo’s latest venture is Grom. Three more branches are due to open this month to go with the ifc mall gelato outlet. Grom sells gelati from Italy made from 100-per-cent natural ingredients, without artificial colouring, aromas or preservatives.
Grom runs its own farms, so the flavours change every three or four months, depending on the availability of the produce. After gelati, what’s next? “I think we are going to try and go a little bit healthier, to balance our portfolio,” Suen says with a smile. “We are not talking about vegan, but I believe that there should be a balance.”
The entrepreneurs are not focusing solely on Asia. Suen is keeping an eye on what’s happening in his home state, California, and will soon start a number of ventures in the United States. “We are going to do a bit here and a bit in California. I find that Asian concepts are under-represented in the US, so there will be some things in the works,” says Suen. “But we are opening up a Panino Giusto in Silicon Valley, right beside Apple’s new spaceship campus in Cupertino. That will be the first in America. Right now, our schedules are really tight. We are doing four openings within six months. We have Grom at ifc mall, Fashion Walk, Festival Walk, Lee Gardens One and then the Cupertino one.”
The duo’s company constantly receives franchise proposals, but the siblings are cautious about diluting the strength of their brands. That is why we won’t see them expanding into mainland China anytime soon. It is also why they shy away from overly grand restaurants with big-name chefs.
“There are a lot of smaller restaurants popping up and these foodie restaurants are just doing their thing,” Suen says. “The well-known Michelin-starred restaurants, you can’t do that every day. It takes a lot of money and a huge name, and I think it’s moving away from that now.
“I think that’s great. In the US, I have actually seen these celebrity chefs going from fine dining and moving towards more of a quick-service restaurant – kind of like us – with higher turnover, more affordable food, but still premium ingredients because this is the trend in real life.
“You know, you can go down any street in Soho and wine and dine. No-name chefs make great food and they’re not classically trained. Before, you had to be classically trained at Le Cordon Bleu, do your internship with whomever and then, maybe, within 10 years you could launch your own small restaurant.
“Also, in the food industry there’s a lot of ego – the chefs, the managers – so it’s very political. The restaurant industry can be very ego-driven, and we don’t have that when it comes to working together. With us, we’re family and there really isn’t a lot of politics.”