Black Sheep Restaurants' SOP: Covid-19 Playbook was a success when it was published last year. Since then, it has been translated into Chinese, Japanese, French and Spanish, and it has been adopted by chains and independent operators worldwide.
Black Sheep co-founder Syed Asim Hussain has also become the go-to F&B voice of wisdom on press statements, staff health, cost management and customer service.
“If you’d told me last January that everyone in Hong Kong would be following it, I would never have believed you,” he said. “We’re just so focused on what’s next that I couldn’t possibly predict what will happen when travel opens. My crystal ball is broken.”
With 30 restaurants, Hussain and partner Christopher Mark's focus at the pandemic's onset was to avoid redundancies among its 1,000 strong staff, but soon shifted their focus to “getting on top of the situation and staying ahead of the curve".
The result was Black Sheep’s playbook. It incorporates government and public health department protocols with its own internal guidelines to create an operational model that saved jobs and put its restaurants back on track by mid-2021.
Hussain reckons that going forward, restaurant operators may be compelled to embrace the changes and bioprotocols that are likely to linger in any kind of post-Covid F&B environment. “I think some of this is here to stay. The absence of these measures will be strange. Guests get a sense of comfort or relief when they see them. They think they’re being looked after."
Black Sheep was strategic in how it implemented Playbook. Hussain opted to focus on destination outlets such as Carbone, Michelin-starred Belon and New Punjab Club. In these restaurants, Covid protocols are balanced with aesthetically pleasing decor that matched each outlet’s interiors and didn’t detract from the guest experience. Diners are greeted with elegantly packaged and branded sanitisers in ergonomic bottles among other tabletop accessories, and the now-omnipresent separator screens are designed to blend in with each restaurant’s ambience.
Destination dining Tuscan trattoria Associazione Chianti. Photo Credit: Associazione Chianti
Next on the F&B crisis playbook
With Hong Kong’s on-site dining scene rebounding in the second quarter of 2021 but travel restrictions still in full force — and tightening in some circumstances — Black Sheep is doing its best to plan for the future, though Hussain doesn’t see travel fully opening until at least 2022.
As a group, the focus for the immediate future will be to maximise the domestic market, re-engage with local hotels and maintain those relationships. Additionally, though no one wants to acknowledge it, Hussain is crisis-planning for other potential Covid waves.
“I don’t want to be surprised by that,” he says. Major tourism-led events such as Art Basel or the HK Sevens would be “the wind in our sails, but I’m not holding my breath".
Hussain is hesitant to make broad predictions, as Black Sheep represents only “a very small cross-section” of hospitality-led restaurants in Hong Kong, but the new dining normal is likely to comprise more “highly fabricated, detailed restaurant experiences and we will continue to curate these distinct, story-driven moments” within government-mandated frameworks, he said.
For now, dining-out will continue to be defined by pared-down menus based on available ingredients, and for Black Sheep a greater pivot to what Hussain calls the “in-restaurant experience” and re-emphasising its authentic and global flair.
The group’s outlets have resumed special events, such as wine classes at Italian eatery Stazione Novella, Mexican Independence Day celebrations at Taqueria Super Macho and pizza-making parties at Motorino, all designed to engage diners and shake up the status quo — which could become a pillar of Hong Kong's restaurant scene.
Black Sheep co-founder and CEO Asim Hussain.
Black Sheep is also forging ahead with its winning tender for the next phase of the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts, Hong Kong’s Supreme Court from 1914 to the 1980s: the historic Central Magistracy. The massive F&B project spanning four storeys will comprise two restaurants, three bars, private dining and a wine cellar. Designer Joyce Wang admits there are no Covid protocols baked into the revitalisation’s design DNA, but “we have kept the openings for natural air flow and created pockets of private dining alcoves on the terrace and in the main dining areas" to accommodate a rise in controlled, private dining space. Hussain believes that guests, such as office workers, may soon be looking at more elbow room during meals, as table spacing in new venues will be a factor.
“I don’t think we’re ever going back to how things were before, but last year there were suggestions Covid would be the end of brick-and-mortar dining. I think that’s completely inaccurate,” said Hussain. “Restaurants are the last non-digital frontier, where we go to get away from our screens, socialise, and indulge in the ritual of gathering with loved ones and taking in nourishment. I don’t think that’s going to go away. The reverie of a restaurant can’t be duplicated from a box on your couch.”