Last month marked 25 years since SANDIP GUPTA arrived in Hong Kong from India, where he’d just taken his first steps in a hospitality career at the Hyatt Regency New Delhi. Since then, he has worked together with fellow Indian restaurateur Sandeep Sekhri at the very forefront of the industry in HK – first with Dining Concepts, and today as founder of a new brand, S&S Hospitality. We sat down with Sandip for a delicious lunch at SPIGA and a chat about his work.
Tell us a bit about S&S. What do you hope to achieve?
At S&S, we aim to create boutique dining experiences. We want to amaze and exceed guest expectations with a sincerity of purpose, ingenuity and love for what we do – the idea is to stay consistent to our roots while adding value to Hong Kong’s vibrant dining scene. All the restaurants in our stable have a story to tell – they did at Dining Concepts, when we had over 30 restaurants, and they do at S&S.
What are some of those restaurants and bars?
We have a great combination of venues, with some amazing rooftop and terrace locations. There are iconic restaurants like Harbourside Grill, great for sunset views; Duck & Waffle, in another stunning location; and SPIGA, where we are today, and which is helmed by Enrico Bartolini, one of the hottest Italian chefs globally. We also have other fantastic personalities behind the restaurants, including designers Tom Dixon at ALTO, and Ashley Sutton at DragonFly, and Will Mayrick, the chef at Monsoon. We’ve just completed ten years at Bouchon, our neighbourhood Parisian-style French restaurant. Then we have Braza, the only churrascaria in Hong Kong – it’s an all-you-can-eat restaurant, and very good value. They’re all special in their own way. It’s a mix I’m very proud of.
What impact did the pandemic have on business, and how have you dealt with it?
The pandemic came out of nowhere, and it kind of blew all of us away. It’s truly the most difficult and challenging time. Personally, though, I feel the reason we’ve coped well is our emphasis on remaining positive. You can’t change the pandemic, but a positive mindset helps you deal with it in a better manner. Then, when the good times come, you’re more ready. Cultivating that culture of positivity makes a difference. If you can be positive, adaptable and empathetic, while reassuring your staff and your guests with a strong message of health and hygiene, it goes a long way.
During SARS, in 2003, everyone said to us, “Don’t open any more restaurants!” But it’s very important to have belief in your hard work and passion. We opened three new restaurants in the following year. It was the same during the financial crisis; we opened five restaurants.
We have one of the most resilient economies in the world here, and I think it will bounce back quickly. My trust in Hong Kong stands firm.
Is there a winning formula in the restaurant business?
To me, this is a passion game, and that means there can’t really be a set formula. It isn’t a mathematical equation; it’s something you do out of love. Having said that, one important thing when opening a bar or restaurant is identifying the right concept – and the right location for that concept. After that, it’s all about execution. It requires some luck, but also lots of hard work. And while luck can be a great help, you can be more proud of what you achieve through hard work. It’s also vital to have the right team; you can’t succeed without a winning team.
Another element of our philosophy is value for money. We want people to go away from a restaurant with special memories of their visit, not remembering how much they paid. We have some of the best-value set lunches in Hong Kong. Sometimes I think we price them too low, but in the bigger picture, that’s a good thing, as people don’t think it’s a rip-off. We also never compromise on quality of ingredients, and we strive to remain consistent – that’s a key. It’s also important to keep evolving and always be on your toes. You can’t stand still.
We have customers who come back to our restaurants time and time again because of the genuine service, the warmth and the value for money. On Sunday, a lady celebrated her 89th birthday with us, and she’s been doing this for 15 years – not one birthday missed. I guess that speaks to a winning formula.
Are you a foodie?
I normally have lunch at one of our restaurants – I like to keep in touch with our staff and customers. I’m not naturally the most adventurous “foodie” – Indian and Italian food are my favourites – but being in the hospitality industry turns you into one. I like to try new things.
My best food memories revolve around my mum’s cooking. Back home, even a simple chole bhature or aloo paratha was so special. I learnt to cook from my mother, and because of her I was always attracted to food. I would love to cook, if I had more time. But my mum was a good cook, my wife is a lovely cook, and I’m surrounded by people who can cook. It’s a blessing!
What do you like to do outside of work?
The restaurant business is strenuous. For me, the best way to rewind is to spend quality time with family. It’s like a soothing balm! When my kids smile, I smile. I also walk almost every day. I plug into some good music – I listen to a lot of Hindi music – and I connect with nature. It helps me to detach but still remain attached.
I’m very passionate about cricket. It brings a smile to my face, and I can go hours and hours just talking about it. To Indians, this sport is a religion. There aren’t many occasions when the whole nation unites and rejoices, so cricket is very special.
What motivates you to keep pushing forward?
I think it’s the child in me that makes me play the game with the same intensity. I’m 50 now, but S&S is almost like a fresh start – a second innings, to use a cricket term – and I want to do it better than my first innings. The day I feel I’m no longer enjoying the game, I’ll gracefully make my exit. But for now, the child is still there!
I hope my story can be an inspiration to others. Who knew that 25 years ago a young lad from Howrah, India, would come and do something like this in Hong Kong? If this can inspire others and give them the courage to dream, that’s what keeps me motivated!
Finally, we know you have lots in the pipeline for 2021, but what’s one new thing S&S is doing at the moment that you can share with us?
We’re working closely with Impact Hong Kong (impacthk.org) and looking to open up a kitchen to help feed the homeless; and I hope to go and work in that kitchen! We add an option on our bills for diners to make a donation to Impact Hong Kong as well.
Amongst the glitz and glamour of the city, there are a lot of underprivileged people. We can’t change the world, but in our own little way we can be the beginning of something nicer. We have this privilege and we should give back.
Find out more at sandshospitality.com.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.