On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, SANDEEP SEKHRI was cruising through Sai Kung, when he decided to stop and take a moment at one of the local beaches. As he sat on the sand, relaxing and taking in the view, his mind started ticking over. “I looked around and I thought, ‘I’d like to take over that whole space and create a charming beach club and a really nice dining destination,’” he recalls. This ability to see opportunity has defined the career of the Dining Concepts restaurant group founder and chief executive, who has been one of the single biggest influences on Hong Kong’s restaurant scene.
Whether it’s his role as a driving force behind some of the city’s most iconic restaurants, to developing the Soho district into a dining destination, Sandeep’s fingerprints are all over the city, with about 30 venues in the Dining Concepts stable. Even now, after more than 30 years in the game and 18 years of Dining Concepts, he shows no signs of slowing down and is still brimming with ideas and passion.
Making a start
Sandeep was always focused. Born and raised in Delhi, at the age of 15 he decided he wanted to go into hospitality. He went to a hotel school, started learning French and spent his weekends waitering at hotel banquets, learning the ropes of the industry from the ground up. But, after graduation and three years in the hotel game, Sandeep realised he wanted something different, and the opportunity to earn more. “I made a very quick decision to not live in India any more, so I decided to go overseas,” he says.
An opportunity arose to work with a Hong Kong-based restaurant group when they asked him to find a manager for one of their restaurants. When the new hire quit after four days, Sandeep asked if he could take on the job himself.
He landed in Hong Kong as a 24-year old newlywed and took on the restaurant, the Viceroy. “I was given carte blanche to do whatever I wanted,” he says. “I started working 12 to 18 hours a day and possibly didn’t take a day off for five to six years, but we started making money within a year.” During his time with the restaurant group, he developed other lines of business such as hotel supplies, and opened a Shanghai office for them, before he took the plunge and launched his own restaurant group. Dining Concepts was born.
“I thought, ‘If I can do it for someone else, I can do it for myself over again,’” he says. “The problem was I had no money and no shareholders, I didn’t know how to raise money and I didn’t know about real estate. I only knew how to operate the businesses. So, I had to start from scratch all over again. It was extremely challenging. But I found some people willing to invest, and with some sweat equity, I opened two Bombay Dreams – one in Kowloon and one in Central.”
Downs and ups
“We had a great start – Bombay Dreams took off from day one,” he recalls. “And then SARS happened. We lost about 80 percent of our business overnight.” As the city reeled in the wake of the health crisis, Sandeep saw an opportunity that laid the foundations for the company that Dining Concepts is today.
“I used to walk up to Soho during SARS and, while I could see the business had dropped 80 percent in the rest of the town, Soho had dropped only 20 percent. I tried to figure out the reason and I thought it was because it was made up of neighbourhood restaurants. So, I decided to convert Soho to a dining district. Everyone was telling me ‘don’t do it’, but I said I might as well lose everything. I started from scratch and went ahead and took one space, brought in a shareholder and we opened in December 2003 with a restaurant called Soho Spice. It took off in two months.”
Sandeep then took advantage of the lower overheads presented by the post-SARS drop in rent to sign long leases and opened a number of venues in quick succession. As the Soho scene matured, he then took the business to the next phase, developing partnerships with celebrity chefs and opening a series of restaurants in some of Hong Kong’s swanky malls. He started with Laurent Tourondel’s BLT Steak in Harbour City, and continued with Michael White’s Al Molo and Gordon Ramsay’s Bread Street Kitchen, London House and, most recently, Maze Grill.
Not content with dominating dining, he has turned his attention to bars in the past five years, creating some of the city’s most talked-about – and most Instagrammed – venues, such as Ophelia and Iron Fairies.
Reflecting on his success, Sandeep identifies his optimism as key. “I’ve always had a very entrepreneurial spirit,” he says. “As an entrepreneur, I don’t hesitate in taking risks – I take a lot of risks. I’m always optimistic things will work – which they don’t always! There’s a lot of self-belief. But I have also managed to surround myself with some of the best people in the world. I have more than 15 people who have been with me for more than 20 years. Those are the people behind the success of the group – it’s not a one-man show. All our skill sets are complementary and our roles have evolved.
We were never prepared for our present roles, we didn’t have a vision. We grabbed opportunities and we took chances and we took a lot of risks and we realised very early on that our industry is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”
As for the future, Sandeep has no intention of slowing down. “I believe you should keep challenging yourself and keep pushing yourself to do something very different and very new,” he says. “I see a lot of potential in Hong Kong still to grow – we can still do 20 more restaurants! Hong Kong has the best of everything. We are the most efficient city in the world. We have the best skyline in the world – but it can be so much more than where we are at today.”
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