This month alone, Black Sheep Restaurants has launched two new restaurants — stylish tandoor grill house New Punjab Club and the charming Italian eatery Osteria Marzia, on the ground floor of the Fleming Hotel — but if you thought the group would be taking a breather following their third restaurant to open this year (and 16th in total), you clearly haven’t met co-founders Syed Asim Hussain and Christopher Mark.
Driven by a clear vision, steely determination and propensity for hard work (a typical work day starts about 7am and ends after midnight), Hussain and Mark have spearheaded Black Sheep Restaurants to become one of the most prominent and successful restaurant groups in Hong Kong. And while 16 restaurants might to some feel small-scale next to other monolithic, mass-produced groups (think of Maxim’s Group, which operates a whopping 1,000-plus outlets), the sheer amount of thought and effort put into bringing each unique concept to life has translated into some of Hong Kong’s most well-known and most frequented establishments (Carbone, Ho Lee Fook, Chôm Chôm and Motorino, to name a few).
This year, Black Sheep Restaurants also celebrates its 5th anniversary — a seemingly short time for a F&B group that’s managed to carve out a unique niche in the market, pioneer the next generation of high-quality restaurants in Hong Kong, and most importantly, create a vast yet tight-knit community of chefs, front-of-house staff, office and restaurant managers, and hospitality mavens who collectively work towards one goal, with one mindset (both current and ex-staff jokingly refer to the group’s 700-plus employees as a type of cult).
As we sit down with Hussain and Mark to reflect on five years in the business, they reveal to us two very exciting upcoming projects in the works: their first Kowloon venture — a branch of La Vache opening on Hart Avenue in Tsim Sha Tsui in December — and their first international venture, a concept inspired by one of their current restaurants that’s set to debut in Shanghai sometime next year. The choice of Shanghai was by no means by default: Mark and Hussain continue to deflect offers weekly (including setting up restaurants from Jakarta to the UK, and bringing a branch of Ho Lee Fook to New York) — each rejected on the grounds of falling short of BSR’s vision or straying from its core brand values.
While these deals are tied to mega contracts, their decision is hardly surprising: It’s this integrity that’s formed the foundation of Black Sheep Restaurants from a fledgling operation scrambling to put together their first venture, Boqueria, in less than two months, to a full-fledged F&B powerhouse always on the cusp of something new and noteworthy for Hong Kong’s food-obsessed crowds. Here, they discuss with us the biggest challenges they still face in the industry, what it means to be part of the BSR “cult”, and plans for the future (the Mexican restaurant we’re hoping for, perhaps?).
Christopher Mark: Thank you. We’re just glad we survived. There’s been a lot of physical and emotional damage.
Syed Asim Hussain: Yeah a lot of literal, and metaphoric, blood, sweat and tears. We’re still standing, though. We’re still here. We have a perks programme called The Herd, so we’re doing some giveaways for that. We’re sort of partied out for the moment.
CM: Yeah, I can’t take any more. Both of us get very socially exhausted by parties.
SAH: I sort of grew up in the restaurant business. My father had restaurants in Hong Kong. So I grew up in and around them in the ’80s and ’90s. My father, he didn’t really have much success in the restaurant business, so I think in some ways this is me picking up where he left off.
I went to boarding school in Pakistan and would come back every summer. I came back once when I was 13 and I thought it was going to be an amazing summer, I was going to play tennis every day and go partying in LKF. The next morning, the manager from one of our restaurants took us down to the tailor to get uniforms made, and I was like “WTF is happening?” They got us the full Indian attire, I started working on the third day until the very last day of summer. When I look back now, I think the seed of hospitality was planted that summer.
I went to college in the US and worked in finance, but even then I always knew that I was going to come back and give this thing a shot. I moved back about seven years ago, started working at a prominent restaurant group, and that’s where Chris and I met.
CM: I’ve been in the restaurant business for 30 years; I quit high school quite young. I’ve always gravitated towards the kitchen and became a head chef at a very young age. To further my learning, I travelled and worked in various countries: Australia, the Caribbean, Japan, China. I knew that I wanted to have my own restaurants one day, and Hong Kong was the perfect place for it. There’s a lot of freedom here, and it’s very entrepreneurial. That led me to where I met Asim and that started it. Our values were pretty aligned, we both sort of wanted to create a restaurant group that served its team members first, and looking back now, I think we’ve been successful in doing that.
CM: We actually hadn’t planned to open a Spanish restaurant. We were planning to do something else, and we couldn’t get a location. Asim and I looked at about 250 sites for what we were planning to do. Every time our realtor would say, “There’s a site over here”, we would just rush over and we’d get there and be totally disappointed. I remember one morning, it was about 9am, and someone said there’s an amazing site, and we went over there and it just sucked. I was so despondent. We went outside and bought two big beers at the 7-Eleven and were just on the street drinking, because this was like 180 sites into it.
SAH: I still have the Excel sheet: it’s 257 entries. I can be very diligent — that’s a nice way of putting things — and I’m also very detail-oriented, so we would look at sites, then I would go back to this Excel sheet, put in all the details and notes. And it was a very difficult, tedious process, but I think we had no time to think. We were just sort of full steam ahead.
CM: It was very hard to get sites at that time. Hong Kong was still in a bit of a bubble, and then this site came up and someone said, take it or leave it. And we just said, “We’ll take it.” We hadn’t raised the capital yet, we didn’t have a concept for it, or a chef.
SAH: And it came with strings attached. The hotel at that time was sort of obsessed with this idea of doing something Spanish. And like any good entrepreneur we said, “Yeah, we’ll do something Spanish.” We had 50 days to put the whole thing together, and to sign a major Spanish restaurant brand as well. I think I was on a plane the very next morning.
SAH: I had lived in New York so I was familiar with good Spanish restaurants in the city. Chris looks at restaurants very academically, so if you ask him right now the best Peruvian restaurants in the world, he’ll list them off. But yeah, there was some Googling involved, I’ll admit.
CM: Well it was hard because Spanish [food] hadn’t really created many brands back then. We got the deal signed, and we just moved forward with it.
SAH: I think for me, I’m very proud to say that we sort of exist in our own niche. We have no competitors, at least in the space that we exist. So I think for me, the lesson is just that the race is long, so just being patient and consistent is very important. I know we run our restaurants at a very high level, but what takes a lot of mental, physical and emotional effort is keeping them there.
CM: I think I underestimated how many stakeholders would have to be serviced. We had discussed looking after our staff and they in turn can look after our customers, but there’s so many other landlords or financiers or suppliers and so many other relationships to maintain and people to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
CM: I think both of us are very proud of our team.
SAH: I say this often, Black Sheep is a community, a movement first, and a company second. I think we’ve been really successful in creating this sense of community and camaraderie around the work that we do. Even now that we have 16 restaurants and 700 people, it’s this sense of togetherness that we’re most proud of. My mom jokes that this is a cult, and I think she’s partly right.
CM: Look, we’re not here to be “nice” to people, you know, that doesn’t help them with their careers, either. I sincerely hope that when people work with us that they get professional development. We’re not “cowboy-ing” as much as when we first started, we’re putting in systems such as where our chefs can come in and learn to look after the financial side of the business. In other places, they would just let them cook and whatnot, and so when these guys go on, they’re going to have another set of skills. So we try to have good relations with people, but sometimes you have to be firm.
SAH: But I think our people know that we are there for them when they need us. At all times, at all odd hours of the night. When I’m interviewing people, I often warn them that there are easier jobs out there, that this is not easy — just because Chris and I are so committed to this. We expect a real sense of commitment from their side, too. But I hint that what we offer is unparalleled, personally and professionally. This is what people are looking for.
CM: It’s very important that the place makes a statement and that that statement stays with people. And everything’s congruent and everything supports everything else. You know, these restaurants are an escape for people, from the boringness of their offices and their phones and their computers, so we just put a lot into that story. We don’t have to, and maybe a lot of people don’t appreciate it or don’t care about it.
SAH: You know these tiles behind you? [New Punjab Club] was delayed for about a month and a half for these tiles. Sean [the designer] and I studied architecture books and we wanted an element that would suggest Punjabi-ness, but wasn’t overtly Indian or Pakistani or Punjabi. I was sitting over here the other day and I was thinking to myself, “Does anyone even notice this?” But I think maybe these individual things they don’t notice, but the coming together, of thoughtful, high-quality elements, they understand. I think good-quality restaurants evoke a strong emotional response and that’s what we do. But we do spend way too much time developing our restaurants.
CM: It depends. For us, it’s not about prestige or expense. I saw in Uwe’s new restaurant they’re serving something on a plate that cost thousands of thousands of dollars, it’s from the Tang dynasty or something like that. I don’t think we go for that. But we do want everything to be congruent.
SAH: It’s about telling original stories. Also, I think this is the only way that we know how to create restaurants. People have their formulas; this is our formula. Our work’s very personal, you know, we have this sort of box that’s built up of memories, fantasies, our childhoods, that we draw on. It’s not just Chris and I but the people that we work closely with, that are a part of our leadership team. We draw on this box for inspiration and ideas.
CM: We have to compromise in our work, but we don’t want to do shitty stuff. We’re usually unwilling to compromise — that’s the last resort on most things.
SAH: Also because we’re at our restaurants all the time, if we’ve done something poorly, we have to live with it day in and day out.
SAH: I think our formula is very different. We’re trying to build restaurants that stand the test of time, that are here long after Chris and I are gone. So I think that sort of serves them well, they can put on a fresh coat of paint every three years, or just pack up the whole thing and call it something else, and that’s their formula and it works for them — but it would never work for us. So we don’t spend too much time worrying about that.
CM: We don’t need any more restaurants. We might open a couple more just because we have people that we’re trying to develop, or a couple more stories that we want to tell. But there’s no compelling need for us to open more restaurants, at least not financially.
CM: I think we don’t really worry about that. There’s a big market, there’s eight million people here, and there’s something for everyone. And there’s each restaurant group that’s successful in catering to their own niche, and you know, what we do is our own niche.
SAH: And the motivation for us has never been financial. It’s nice to have financial gains and successes, of course, but that’s not our motivation. There’s sort of a big push for restaurant groups to go public as well, but it’s like, how is that going to help us, you know? We run great restaurants, we’re able to express ideas, we do what works best for building our community. We’re doing sort of everything that we wanted to do from day one, which is the best-case scenario for us.
CM: Also, that doesn’t interest us because the control of the restaurants would be out of our hands.
CM: I think it’s different for both of us. I tend to start a bit later, and I might be around a bit later. I have a lot of structured meetings throughout the day. Each restaurant comprises of a team, so we need to meet with those teams on a regular basis to communicate and disseminate information, and then we also need to physically visit the restaurants. We just opened at The Fleming, so I’ve been staying at the hotel and going down for breakfast between 6 and 9am randomly just to see what’s happening at the restaurant, and check that the staff are on their toes and whatnot.
SAH: Yeah, in the evening I think both of us are rotating. We like to start in different corners of our (small) empire and meet in the middle, and then do one round together. Our afternoons are often sort of spent together in meetings, but I like waking up early and working out. In the late morning, I’m sort of working on my own stuff. No two days are ever alike.
CM: And then there’s often an emergency, or calamity, fires to fight, a flood or a break-in.
SAH: Look, this is everything we’ve done over the last five years. Work is everything and the only thing I’ve done over the last five years. This has come — and I think I can speak for Chris as well — at a great personal cost. But I think starting a company, this was the only way it was going to work out.
CM: Yeah, pretty much all the time I spend with my daughter is at work in the restaurants.
SAH: Chris is a little bit older than me so I think he knew this already, but this is sort of one thing that I’ve learned: how to maintain some sense of calmness as the world around you is falling apart.
CM: Something’s always broken. Like, this weekend, things were broken all over our restaurants all at once. The gas stopped working somewhere, the A/C broke somewhere, one of the doors got locked and had to be broken. And there were a whole bunch of other things: the toilet services were not working in a couple of buildings — the whole world was falling apart on Saturday.
SAH: We’re in the trenches still, we’ll always be on the front line, I think that’s how all great restaurant companies are run. Also, we’ve got no other plans! This is everything we are. But we’re not alone. We have a strong leadership team with us, and I think that’s the biggest difference now from day one.
SAH: Can’t you see from our [matching] clothes? [Laughs.]
CM: I think we agree on major things, we might disagree on minor things. But like, we just had a business deal offered to us recently, and it would’ve been really a lot of money for us, for our company, and it wouldn’t have taken that much out of us, either. But it was the principle on the other side of the deal. We met him, and at the end Asim and I just looked at each other and we were like, no. There was no real need to have a long discussion about it.
SAH: I’m very proud of how quickly we said no. I think we have very clearly defined values and principles, and if anything is sort of in violation of that, the answer for us is no. I think a big part of our success is the synergy between Chris and myself. There’s this sort of unspoken bond that we have. Of course, there are still a lot of arguments and debates in our relationship. The two things we try to do is: 1) we never do that publicly, and 2) once a decision is made, we follow through with it.
SAH: We haven’t officially announced it but we’re doing something in Shanghai early next year. We’ve had a few different opportunities and for us, it’s very important that we work with the right people. So they’re things we’ve said no to, but we’re doing something in Shanghai, and we may have another exciting project in Europe for next year, but that’s not confirmed yet. We also have two very exciting projects that we’re working on in Hong Kong — the first is we’re taking La Vache! to Tsim Sha Tsui.
CM: We’re very excited about Kowloon. I think a lot of people over the years have said we’re like a gweilo company or something like that, which is not true. We want to set international standards for our work. It was very important to us when we started. People in Hong Kong were always importing brands from London and New York, and we wanted to do something of a standard that we didn’t need to import things.
SAH: I think geographic economies of scale were very much a part of our strategy. We were looking to build clusters of restaurants, and it just so happened that our clusters were in SoHo, on Wyndham, Wan Chai, etc. But now we’re slowly trying to expand.
We have a strong leadership team, we have people that have worked with us for 4, 5, 6 years and they understand our ethos and our principles. I think having these core leaders around us makes things easier. But we plan on being very involved — Chris and I will be there.
CM: Yeah, we’re taking it very seriously, opening in Kowloon. It’s a very competitive market — in that people have very high expectations and we don’t want to let them down. What’s nice is when you think of TST you think of shopping malls, and this is going to be a freestanding space, it’s a little bit organic and it’s in line with what we do.
SAH: Yeah we’ve been hanging out on Hart Avenue, having beers and margaritas late at night, it’s been fun.
CM: There are things…a tiki bar, or a teppanyaki restaurant, or even a Greek taverna maybe.
SAH: We’re dreamers. It can be frustrating at times, because we’re talking about doing everything. We were just talking about doing a tiki bar last week, but it kind of depends on three things: idea, real estate and talent.
CM: Increasingly talent. The real estate is getting easier for us. But we can’t do all this stuff ourselves so if we have someone in our stable, someone who wants to do something, then we’re more happy to explore that.
SAH: I think Bao at Le Garçon is a great example. We had no intention of opening a Saigonese restaurant. For us to continue to be great, it can’t be driven by our ambition and our egos anymore. It has to be sort of a collective ambition and the collective ego of Black Sheep Restaurants and that includes everyone on our roster. That’s the way this juggernaut can keep growing.
CM: I think with bars, we just don’t know what makes a bar work. I think there’s a certain sort of magic to bars, and I respect the people that do it. I think it’s a different discipline. I think we’re good at a package that includes food and service, and the dining experience.
SAH: Yeah, but we’re talking about doing a tiki bar, so we do have aspirations to sort of extend beyond restaurants.
CM: And a strip club.
SAH: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s always been Plan B. No, we definitely have aspirations beyond restaurants; we would love to do a hotel at some point. We say this often: Dreaming is free, so you gotta dream big.
CM: I’m always talking to chefs. When you look back on it, actually, Jowett [from Ho Lee Fook] was not a well-established or recognised chef when we found him. Mario Carbone was actually just starting to get a little bit of recognition at the time we found him. So we’re always just sort of looking for up-and-coming people and hopefully we can be part of the up-and-coming part. We’re not looking for some big name we can throw on the billboard.
SAH: But we are very proud of the stable of chefs that we have in the Black Sheep world.
CM: We have the best group of chefs in Hong Kong, look at it that way.
SAH: He’s saying Hong Kong, but I’m going to say I don’t think there’s other restaurant groups around the world that have the diversity and quality of chefs that we have.
CM: We get asked this all the time. Someone will be introduced to me at least three or four times a week, and they’ll tell me that they want to get into the restaurant business — generally they’re from the finance community. And I always say to them, “What value do you bring to this?” Because anyone can say, “The quality of food is not good here, or I don’t like the service, or I think I can design this better.” But this is a very competitive landscape, and it’s a very simple business question that anyone from a business background should understand: What value do you bring to this? I think not many people ask that question.
SAH: For me it would just be staying committed to what your thoughts and aspirations and dreams and hopes are. Things don’t work out if you’re not committed.
CM: Also people say they want to get into this because they say they’re passionate about it, but you know being passionate about something as a consumer is very different than being on the other side of it, right?
SAH: And the passion goes out very quickly. People think of this as a very glamorous business, but on the other side, it’s really not. It’s a lot of hard work, you know, people talk down to you, restaurants get messy. Sometimes you have to deal with difficult guests.
Last year we won Restaurateurs of the Year, and the very next night there was flooding in Ho Lee Fook. It was disgusting, there was sewage from the entire building. So Chris was helping the guys clean up and I went downstairs and the floor was covered in gutter water. So I walked down and I remember Chris goes, “Whats up, Restaurateur of the Year?” It’s like people don’t know this side of the business.
SAH: I think we’re both sort of restaurant kids. We grew up in restaurants.
CM: I don’t know how to do anything else. I read a lot of business books, and they’ll say if you develop your business, sell it as quickly as possible, take the money and do something else with it…but what am I going to do with it? I’m not going to play golf, or start going into some completely different field like be a biotech venture capitalist or something.
SAH: Yeah, even turning his computer on is sometimes difficult for him.
CM: Absolutely. My retirement dream is to have a beachside restaurant with maybe a small hotel attached to it.
SAH: We’re just doing this for the love of the game. We really are.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.