Singaporean-born restaurateur Yenn Wong talks to us about her rise to the top of Hong Kong’s hospitality scene and the future of Jia Group.
Over the past decade, entrepreneur — and our sister mag Prestige‘s Women of Power honouree — Yenn Wong has taken Jia Group, which she founded in 2010, to the top of the local hospitality scene. From beloved neighbourhood eateries to Michelin-star restaurants, Jia’s venues are based on a strong sense of identity and distinct concepts that shine through food and design.
Throughout her career, Wong has had to deal with unexpected changes and to adapt as quickly as possible. In a city of millions of self-proclaimed foodies, she tells me it’s more important than ever to carefully select the chefs she wants to work with to bring to life impactful restaurants that can stand out.
After two years characterised by forced closures and the constant need to reinvent her restaurants’ offerings, Wong has re-emerged with new accolades and a new restaurant — namely, a Michelin star for Andō, a spot on Asia’s 50 Best for Mono and the much-awaited successful launch of Italian fine-dining concept Estro. I talked to Wong about her career, milestones, the importance of accolades and future plans for Jia Group.
Yenn Wong of Jia Group on her Ever-evolving Career
Tell us about your journey as an entrepreneur and the founder of Jia Group.
I started in my early 20s. I’m originally from Singapore. So when I first came to Hong Kong, it was to start a boutique hotel, almost 20 years ago. I’d say it was Hong Kong’s first boutique hotel and we were working with Philippe Starck, who of course is a very big designer. It was quite a big project and my first experience in hospitality. We opened it six months after Sars, so the process was very, very stressful, because I didn’t know what I was doing — but the economy was starting to recover and we received a lot of immediate support, there was a lot of noise.
The first restaurant we opened was 208 on Hollywood Road. It was kind of in the middle of nowhere at the time, but all the creative types were starting to move towards that side and away from Soho. 208 was the first restaurant to serve real Neapolitan pizza in the city, so it was actually bit educational for people.
Today we have 14 restaurants. Our whole process has always been to take risks when bringing a new concept to life. For example, with Chachawan, we wanted specifically to focus on Northern Thai food, which was something new to the local market. Luckily, Hong Kong people are fluent when it comes to food and open to trying new things. People really appreciate certain operators that take food very seriously and work hard to focus on delivering great quality.
I’ve also been passionate about design, so it’s important for us to combine style and substance.
The ambience needs to match the food and vice versa. What we’ve been aspiring to do is to build consistency and longevity through our concepts.
What prompted you to focus on restaurants? A passion for food or business opportunities?
A combination of both. I always tell people that there must be an easier way to make money. It has to be passion that keeps you wanting to be in this industry, for sure. We’re constantly managing people, staff and customers, so it’s a lot.
When it came to the growth of our group, however, it was kind of organic. We’re quite deep in the industry, so we’re getting a lot more good contacts and proposals. At the same time, when you start to see the positive impact of your venues, both in terms of popularity and respect in the community, you just can’t stop doing this job. I love the fact that, ultimately, this job is about bringing people together and being part of their memories.
What were some of the steps that you adopted as a group to deal with the pandemic?
After months of social unrest, I couldn’t believe it when Covid hit us. We have a Duddell’s at the airport, for example, which was supposed to be super-lucrative because there used to be so many people passing by every day. It was very expensive and complicated to set it up. So, of course, there were times when I didn’t really know what to do. But it all made us a lot stronger and creative, because if we want to survive and thrive, it’s clear we need to change and react fast.
In the first year, we had to adjust very quickly and we were literally doing everything we could to keep the cash flow going. We were constantly negotiating with landlords — every single day — while trying to communicate with our staff. We spent a week or so building Jia Everywhere, a delivery platform for our restaurants. We had no time, so we really tried to finish it quickly and with limited resources. We did that because on many occasions we weren’t allowed to open for business. Obviously, for fine-dining chefs it wasn’t easy to adapt, but we tried our best with special packages, hampers and experiences for the home. It was tough. A lot of people in the industry just left it.
At the same time, I’m glad we all had some time to stop and think about how our industry should be moving forward. Quite a few of our restaurants are now open five days a week, as we’re trying to give the staff a bit more time for self-care and to take care of mental health.
What’s the process of choosing the chef you’re partnering with?
In many cases, it’s through friends in common introduce us. I often spend quite a bit of time with the chefs I end up working with, even before we become partners. This way, when we start working together, it’s pretty quick and easy.
I feel it’s really important that we share the same vision and also have similar values. Once I’ve figured out the potential and the financial aspect of the project, I’m happy to give chefs creative freedom. Many big chefs come from important hotels, so these spaces really feel like opportunities for them to express themselves. It goes without saying that not every single project can be successful — and that’s OK.
In this industry, how important are prestigious accolades?
We always start with no particular expectations. It’s great to get that type of recognition — like a Michelin star — when you believe in the chef and the concept, but it can’t be your initial goal. Ultimately, we’re all running a business and it’s not about chasing after accolades. I want to make money and I’m always very clear about that when I talk to chefs. I’d rather have a restaurant full of happy customers than three Michelin stars and an empty venue, or one people don’t appreciate.
Can you tell us about any new projects that you’re working on?
We’re actually opening a new space with the chef from 22 Ships. He’s a really good Spanish chef and was under the radar for a while, but it was a major success when he took over the restaurant. In general, we need to accept the current travel restrictions as the situation is not going to change anytime soon. I keep telling my staff that we don’t know what will happen, but we need to focus on the present and to deliver experiences to the local clientele. We’ve been trying to focus on our current teams and how we can work even more with them, as it’s pretty hard for new people to come to Hong Kong right now. At the same time, we’re trying to invest more in food technology, to be prepared for future challenges while also being more and more environmentally sustainable.
This article originally appeared on Prestige Hong Kong.