Banker leaves New York to build restaurant empire in Hong Kong

August 01, 2015 08:05
Syed Asim Hussain, a Hong Kong-born Pakistani, quit his well-paying job as a banker in New York to become a restaurateur in Hong Kong. Photo: HKEJ

Some people might find it strange that a banker in New York would quit his well-paying job to start a restaurant in Hong Kong.

But that's just what Syed Asim Hussain, a Hong Kong-born Pakistani, did.

And he doesn't think it's strange at all. He believes that a good entrepreneur must have a solid foundation in finance.

Besides, he was raised in a family of restaurateurs. And so a childhood love for good food and home business stayed with him even while working in a faraway land, dressed in a three-piece suit and crunching numbers.

Hussain was born and raised in Hong Kong. When he turned six, he was sent to a boarding school in Pakistan, and later on graduated from the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where majored in finance and international relations.

Hussain’s father is a businessman. He runs a Pakistani-Indian restaurant, among other businesses.

“That’s one of the earliest Indian restaurants in Hong Kong. The business is good and so my father also opened a bar nearby.”

Young Hussain went back to Hong Kong during summer vacations to visit the family and help with the business. “Other kids would have summer camps or classes, but I had to spend all day cleaning the toilet,” he recalls.

Growing up in the family restaurant has played a big role in his decision to become a food entrepreneur.

Whenever he dines out with friends, Hassain pays attention not only to the food but to the entire dining experience.

After graduating from the university, he joined the banking industry. And while working at BNY Mellon for four years, he witnessed the rapid changes in the New York food culture.

“Around 10 years ago, people no longer loved high-end cuisine, but opting for affordable fine-dining restaurants.”

Five years ago, he decided to move back to Hong Kong to open his first restaurant. Friends teased him about his decision and his family was not very sure if it was a good one.

“My grandfather moved to Hong Kong and started his own business. My father is a Hong Kong-made entrepreneur as well. I always want to follow in their footsteps and run my own business. New York is a great city, but I didn’t feel at home there.

“You’ve got to have some strange compulsions to make your dreams come true. I think the youth have a lot of good ideas, but they lack persistence. When things get complicated, they easily get discouraged. But failures are good learning experiences.”

Hussain didn't bother about what others said, even though he knew they were only caring for him.

“Though a lot of people around you care for you, they might say things that upset you like asking you to avoid taking risks. You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing. If you do not believe in yourself, no one else will.”

In order to truly understand the workings of local restaurants, he began by working as a waiter. “It was tough, as I used to be a white-collar executive sitting all day in the office. It was weird; I had to stand all day carrying a tray. I had no experience and earning little salary.”

Surviving as an apprentice for a year, Hussain got a clear picture of restaurant operations.

He and a friend, Christopher Mark, established the Black Sheep Restaurant brand and opened their first restaurant, Boqueria, in Lan Kwai Fong, Central.

“The black sheep of the family is often regarded in a negative sense. However, we want to celebrate this unique fellow positively. We are not afraid of going against the mainstream.”

The duo strongly believe that the Hong Kong dining industry has a lot of potential for growth.

Many people love to recall their foreign dining experiences and that’s exactly what the young generation is looking for.

“The demand for fine dining is rising, but local restaurants are not paying extra effort. Perhaps they believe the usual practices are enough for business growth and so they need not make changes.”

Each of Hussain's restaurants has a clear theme. La Vache is inspired by steakhouses in New York and Paris; it has no menu as it serves only one dish. Carbone is a New York-style Italian restaurant with a touch of nostalgia.

Hussain sees himself as an entrepreneur, a dreamer and an artist. “Most entrepreneurs often turn a blind eye to risks. My training as a financier equips me with a set of skills that assists me in conducting analysis and identifying business risks.”

He also thinks little about the "if" questions. “I wasn’t left with other options. I had injected all my savings from my New York job and money from my family into the new business. My dream has to be actualized.”

He still remembers the very first month at Boqueria. “The business was slow in the first week. It was better in the second. On Thursday night of the third we got 240 orders. That’s crazy as I hadn’t felt ready for it. There were only five staffers including myself serving the diners. We made a lot of mistakes but it was our first step to succeed.”

As an owner of nine restaurants, Hussain has to work from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day and he has no issues about doing low-level tasks.

“I have to fix the toilet or help in the kitchen when it is short of manpower.”

He regards Hong Kong as the best place for a startup business. “It is a fair city where you can enter, compete and leave the market easily. There are no cities that can be compare to Hong Kong when it comes to making persistent economic growth.”

However, Hussain notes that rising rental costs and food prices pose a lot of pressure on business growth.

He hopes that he can train more talents to share the burden of running the restaurant chain.

His aim is to bring the brand to global attention like, say, Mandarin Oriental.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 31.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version中文版]

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Hussain regards Hong Kong as the best place for a startup business. His aim is to bring his brand to global attention. Photos: HKEJ
As an owner of nine restaurants, Hussain has to work from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day. He does research as well while traveling. Photos: HKEJ
Hussain was born and raised in Hong Kong. Growing up in the family restaurant has played a big role in his decision to become a food entrepreneur. Photos: HKEJ

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal