Hong Kong Madame - English

Entrepreneurs of Hong Kong – Laura and Alexis, Founders of Meraki Hospitality Group

October 2nd 2019

July 2020 edit: Jalan restaurant mentioned in this article has now closed its doors and been replaced by Mama Always Said, another dining concept but still under Meraki Hospitality Group 

by Aude Camus 

Have you ever thought about launching a business with your siblings? I am 100% convinced that me and my brothers would probably end-up killing each other even before the company is fully set-up. So how come French (but raised in Hong Kong) sister and brother, Laura and Alexis can make it looks so easy? Even more in the FnB industry which is definitely not known for being an easy one to work in. They work together, they open restaurants together (their latest baby being Jalan, a modern Malaysian kitchen and bar), they sometimes party together and even share a Caipirinha at Uma Nota, they even managed to go through this entire interview without even squabbling for a single second. God, thinking that I can spend more than an hour in the same room as my brothers without one of us putting-up a fight … 


Entrepreneurs of Hong Kong – Laura and Alexis, Founders of Meraki Hospitality Group
Hey Laura, Alexis, nice to meet you here today at Bedu! I know you are busy with the opening of your next restaurant – Jalan - so I won’t take much of your time. Let’s maybe start with a bit on background on who you guys are and how you started Meraki Hospitality Group?
Laura: it all started basically with our family. Our father was in hospitality for a very long time, our mother was also for quite a while. Our father really is what you call a self-made man: he started working when he was 16 and just basically went up the ladder. The funny story is, I don’t know if he ever told you that Alex, but to me he always said, “Don’t ever go into hospitality”.
Alexis: probably the best advice he ever gave us 
Laura: he used to tell me that it was too hard, you don’t have a life … But although he worked hard and we didn’t see him a lot growing-up, he always talked about it with such passion that I guess it made it enticing too us. It couldn’t be that bad if he loved it that much, right? I didn’t listen to him and decided to go into hospitality. I’m the eldest so I started off first and went to a hotel school in Paris. My dream was always to work in hotels. I was able to travel the world and did several internships into different hotels. Hospitality definitely is a tough world, but it also makes you grow so much as a person. People are always surprised to hear that, growing-up, I was a very shy person. I’d been able to grow into the person that I am today also because of hospitality. I wouldn’t been where I am today if I hadn’t gone through that. I work in hotels for quite a long time, always in restaurants starting-off my career in Hong Kong for the opening of the Ritz-Carlton and then sent-off to London to open the Shangri-La. While I was in London, I kind of had that moment when I told myself “why am I working so hard for everybody but myself?”. I knew what I was good at and what I loved: opening restaurants. I also knew I didn’t want to work in hotels anymore. So, I decided to go back to Hong Kong (editor’s note: Laura and Alexis grew-up in Hong Kong and their family is still here) and see what I could do there. I opened my hospitality consultancy agency and helped a few cafes and restaurants open here. What I found frustrating is that I couldn’t do what I wanted. At the end of the day, working for a client is still not working for yourself. I did enjoy doing what I was doing but there was a bit of frustration there. And then, this guy here decided that it was our time.
So, you are French but both raised in Asia, right? Is that the reason why, unlike many French restaurants owners you didn’t open any French restaurants here in Hong Kong? 

Entrepreneurs of Hong Kong – Laura and Alexis, Founders of Meraki Hospitality Group
Laura: right, although we are French, we’ve never lived in France. We lived in Asia most of our life. There’s always something about our family and our life that influences us when opening a new venue. I lived in Oman for three years when I was younger, our father knows how to cook Persian food because he worked in Dubai, Oman thus the Middle Eastern vibes here at Bedu. 
Alexis: the idea of Uma Nota basically came-up after an inspiring trip I took to Brazil.
Laura: an the last one is because we lived in Singapore, where there is a very strong Malay influence, for three years and we also used to go to Malaysia a lot. And then again, our father would always talk about Malaysian street-food.
Going for a different concept for each and every of your new opening isn’t really making your life easy, right?

Entrepreneurs of Hong Kong – Laura and Alexis, Founders of Meraki Hospitality Group
Alexis: it would definitely be easier to just duplicate a concept. That’s why the way we are currently working on our expansion is that we have Uma Nota, which we wanna take global (editor’s note: they already opened a Uma Nota in Paris few months ago). There is a lot of interest around this concept because it’s quite a unique product and the restaurant is also just the tip of iceberg. We actually have great ambitions with Uma Nota, we wanna start with restaurants then quickly go into beach clubs, quickly go into hotels as well. But at the same time, we wanna continue opening different concepts here in Hong Kong. And Hong Kong is made in such a way that it is complicated to just duplicate a concept. Everything here just happens in maybe four districts.
Speaking of district, at the moment all your venues are located in Soho. Are you planning and further expand to other neighborhoods? 
Alexis: why not. We are ready to go wherever it makes sense. At the moment though, we are still growing, and it makes more sense for us to be in just one area. It makes it easier for us to be hands-on. Also, because we are not yet as known as the big guys, so we prefer focusing on one area, get the brand out there. If we start spreading everywhere then we have to cater to very different markets, the people in Causeway Bay don’t necessarily come to Soho and vice-versa. But then as soon as the area get saturated or as soon as we get an opportunity then why not opening in a different district. 
Speaking of getting the brand out there, do people identify you as a group? Or do they tend to think that Uma Nota and Bedu are two very different restaurants, not related to each other?
Alexis: we get that a lot. The Meraki name is not really out there yet. I used to work at Black Sheep Restaurants (right here to rediscover our interview of Black Sheep Restaurants’ founders) and when  I first opened Uma Nota, a lot of people use to think I was still with them and the restaurant was a Black Sheep’s one. Which is actually a great compliment to be compared to the bests.

Entrepreneurs of Hong Kong – Laura and Alexis, Founders of Meraki Hospitality Group
But yes, we want to get the name out there and be known as Meraki Hospitality Group. In this part of the world that how it works, here it’s all about the brand. 
Laura: in terms of recruitment also, for the younger generation here in Hong Kong it is very important to be part of a brand. Being part of a group also reinforce the team cohesion: if Bedu and Uma Nota are part of the same group then if Uma Nota needs help someone from Bedu will go. We find it very important to have that group identity. 
Alexis: at this point it doesn’t yet help us attract talents for our new openings but still it helps show people that we have cool concepts and give them a taste of what we can do and what to expect. It also helps people to envision something. Where am I going? What ambitions can I have with this people? The employee side of the business is crucial to us and we put a lot of efforts in taking care of our employees so that they take care of our customers. We are obsessed with making people grow. 
Laura: when Alex says it is important at the moment to have the restaurant in Soho it is also because there is always one of us in the restaurants. If he is not around, then I am and vice-versa. Being hands-on is super important and that is the only way to show your team that you care.
Going back to your different concepts, you usually come-up with concept first and then need to find the right chef for it, right? How do you do? 
Laura: well, we are constantly looking for people to join us. 
Alexis: first of all, we are always anticipating. We are always on the lookout for people. I also feel like we have been very very lucky with the people that we have. We have amazing people in the team. For example, how Jalan – our modern Malaysian eatery – came-up is our sous-chef here at Bedu is Indian but has been living in Malaysia for quite an extensive period of time, we had this real-estate opportunity that came-up (it’s actually a space that we’ve been looking at for quite a long time as we were thinking of opening Bedu there) and we just moved very quickly. 

Entrepreneurs of Hong Kong – Laura and Alexis, Founders of Meraki Hospitality Group
We actually always have a few concepts in mind and then it is just a matter of opportunity. I don’t know about you Laura but Jalan is the concept I am the most excited about since we started. 
You always have a few concepts in mind, meaning that you are planning on further expanding, right?
Alexis: yes. It really is a matter of opportunity. But we do need to grow in order to sustain that development for the people.
Regarding your entrepreneurial journey, what would you say has been the most challenging and the most rewarding so far?
Laura: I mean everything is a challenge to be honest. 
Alexis: a challenge that we definitely expected and that is ongoing is people; finding the right people, keeping the people. We put a lot of efforts on taking care of our people, I know it’s sound a bit cliché but it is definitely a priority to us. 
One last thing, any foodie places you can recommend (which are not part of Meraki Hospitality Group) because you just genuinely like them?
Alexis: I haven’t been there for quite a while but one of my favorite restaurants in Hong Kong is Yardbird. Then, one restaurant which really surprised me was New Punjab Club, because I had no idea what to expect and it really was a great discovery.
Laura: I’m really a creature of habits and tend to always go back to the same places. I like simple food and I actually prefer Asian food to European food. I always love going back to Chôm Chôm. A really nice meal we had recently in a newly opened restaurant was at Cornerstone. But I have to say I don’t go out too much. 
Alexis: also, I love sushis and love to go to Sen-Ryo for lunch every now and then. Sushis are really good and it is very good value for money. 
Laura: and brunch at Zuma
Meraki Hospitality Group


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