Recipe for success: How FoodTank is taking on Hong Kong’s culinary scene

selves more as a management company, and we started to explore different types of concepts with a variety of investors as well,” Ng told Inside Retail.

The dining concepts

Foodtank prides itself on its dining concepts. The Check In brand is a little gem in the Central area that serves up delicious Taiwanese cuisine with a delicate twist, and is shaking up the industry with tea-inspired cocktail creations that uniquely represent the culture. 

Next is their Chotto Maki brand, which is all about delivering sushi rolls catered to a customer’s own personal tastes and preferences. 

The  Chotto Maki brand is positioned as a fast casual concept specialising in takeaway. “We do those Americanised sushi rolls like California rolls and so on, and guests can DIY their own sushi,” Ng said.

Guests walk up to the counter, which has a Subway feel to it, and pick and choose the ingredients they would like in their sushi rolls. 

Ng’s team is planning to open up a third outlet in Hong Kong’s Harvest City soon, as sales are booming and demand is high.

Chotto Maki has a high rate of repeat customers who come back at least two to three times a week for their sushi fix, and it’s now targeting residential customers as well, apart from the usual office crowds. 

Making a difference

Cultivate on the other hand, is an intimate 22-seat restaurant that is situated in the heart of Hong Kong’s Soho district. 

Every night, executive chef and co-owner Leonard Cheung aims to provide diners with a highly seasonal menu that sees humble ingredients elevated to new heights.

“It may be fine dining, but we like to call it casual dining, as it’s not as uptight as traditional fine dining experiences, as most of our seating is right in front of the open kitchen,” Ng said. 

There are 16 seats that face the long open kitchen, and there is a private table that seats six guests. Patrons can interact with the chefs and experience how their dishes are being prepared.

The menu can change on a daily basis, and guests really appreciate the variety and keep coming back to be pleasantly surprised by what is on offer.

“We have had collaborations with a caviar brand that customises its offerings according to our specifications. Our patrons love the specialised packaging as well, and many end up buying the tins of caviar directly from us,” he said. 

Keeping it lively

The group’s last concept is 25th hour, a speakeasy bar that is helmed by Kenzo, a mixologist who creates exciting cocktails that promise individuality and uniqueness. 

“We were very lucky to find a very passionate mixologist, and he was working mainly in hotels before, and he never got the chance to show his craftsmanship, so we got him to further his passion in this area,” Ng said. 

This venture is probably the most challenging for the group as Ng noted that foot traffic in the nightlife area of Hong Kong has not recovered to pre-pandemic levels. 

Nonetheless, they have branched out towards bespoke cocktail service for birthday parties, private dinners and corporate events.

“We’ve even made our own brand of alcoholic ice-cream and that has been a hit among our customers,” he said. “During the lockdown, our guests were also ordering bottled cocktails that were personalised to their liking too.”

Still in transition

Ng revealed that the Group is still in a bit of a transition phase at the moment as it is trying to move into dining concepts that are more in their control to ensure they can push future development at a rapid pace.

“Right now, our role is in the middle, as we are serving both investors and ourselves, but we are looking towards shifting our role into exploring new opportunities for future growth,” he said. 

Ng’s first venture was opening up the Check In brand in Taipei, and it’s now been around for seven years. It was a small shop with only 1000 sq ft of space, but recently, it opened a flagship store in Harbour City, and it’s a lot bigger.

The brand reinvents traditional Taiwanese dishes such as minced meat on rice with truffle on top, or braised fish maw. Even breakfast staples such as egg crepes (egg rolls) that normally have cheese and ham fillings get the Check In treatment.

Servings of roasted eel, or ‘unagi’ are incorporated into these dishes in pure Japanese Okonomiyaki style. 

“Even though all of our dishes are Taiwanese in nature, we will bring in different ingredients or cooking methods from other cuisines to try and come up with something new,” he said. 

Popularity on the rise

According to Ng, Check In’s frequent menu changes have made the concept quite popular among the masses, as they love the creativity that is displayed through the offerings.

“With every new menu launch, we try to keep coming up with the next big thing, and make some noise, and we always try to stay on top and be one of the trendsetters,” he said. 

A perfect example is the brand’s reinvention of the humble mochi. Check In’s version has the dessert’s traditional springy texture but none of the glutinous effect, and it simply melts in your mouth.

“It’s still very popular in Taiwan, and we were the first ones to bring it to Hong Kong, so that really caught everyone’s attention, and to this day, we are the only ones to serve this type of mochi,” Ng said. 

The social media game

Interestingly, Ng handles all of Foodtank’s marketing efforts. He doesn’t use an external PR agency. The brand gets good reviews on Openrice, TripAdvisor and Dianping (a Chinese version of Yelp).

“We definitely value our presence on different social media channels, as in Hong Kong, there are over 50,000 restaurants, so it’s really hard to stand out from the crowd,” he said. 

Ng makes it a point to reach out to key opinion leaders (KOL), and food bloggers in the Hong Kong area to ensure he gets the word out about this brand and dining concepts.

“No matter if they have 50000 followers or 5000 followers, I think it’s important to invite them in and make them feel valued, and let them experience the food for themselves,” he said. 

He makes it a point to build relationships with these influencers, so that it’s always easier down the road to invite them back, even when there is nothing new to announce. 

For him, it’s about the camaraderie and being the master of his own media ecosystem.

Innovation is key

When it comes to designing the menus in all of his dining concepts, Ng takes a very hands-on approach, and he actually prefers hiring chefs with Western cuisine backgrounds.

He believes the organisational nature of Western kitchens is a big factor in terms of maintaining cleanliness and hygiene as compared to traditional Chinese-run kitchens.

Sitting down with the chefs and planning the menus is an integral part in the innovation process, and Ng takes this very seriously.

“I have a bit of background in terms of cooking, so I try to shorten processes and see how we can execute certain dishes in a restaurant setting, while keeping it creative and fresh,” he said. 

One great example is a new dessert dish that is a combination of shaved ice toppings with a tofu-based pudding that has gone viral on social media in Taiwan, and it’s been a hit in Hong Kong, too.

The Group is gearing up to launch a new Noodle Bar venture, where guests can customise their bowl of noodles with over 50 ingredients for a quick bowl of nourishing goodness.

“We’ve been getting a lot of comments that the sushi rolls are nice for the summer when it’s hot, but during winter, our customers were craving for something warm, so that’s how we hit on the noodle bar concept,” he said. 

A bright future

Ng feels that all the brands have very expandable concepts down the road, especially Chotto Maki, and the group is working towards expanding it to more locations soon

“As for Cultivate, I think our partnership with our chef is going well, and we want to leverage on his talent and we are already planning a new concept with him as we speak,” he said. 

Ng is someone who doesn’t like sitting still, he is always keen to try new things, open to new ideas and ready to step outside his comfort zone.

His biggest task right now is to increase the headcount in his group to oversee the operations and have more people managing day-to-day issues, so that he can concentrate more on the innovation side of things.

“Actually just two months ago, I brought in an operations manager, because that was my job, as I was running around outlets, organising meetings and so on, now it’s time for me to let go,” he said. 

For Ng, letting go is a difficult thing to do, as he is a perfectionist by nature, and very detail-oriented. 

“In some respects, it’s very hard for me to let go of a lot of stuff because I want to make everything’s right, but I have also realised that you just have to let go and get the right people in to do the job,” he concluded.

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