Executive Opportunities

Appetite for the finer things in life

by Chris Johnson

Stephen Wright, international fine foods director,Gourmet and Great Food Hall, A.S. Watson Group (HK) Limited

Food hall business requires expertise in products from around the world

Hong Kong has long been known for its multitude of restaurants serving cuisines from around the world. Now, though, it is also seeing an increase in the number of food halls catering to customers keen to enjoy at home the very best of what each country has to offer.

"This is a growth market in Hong Kong and we are also looking strategically at the opportunities for expanding retail operations within Asia," says Stephen Wright, international fine foods director for Gourmet and Great Food Hall, which are both divisions of A.S.Watson Group (HK) Limited.

Since joining the group earlier this year, Mr Wright has spent much of his time overseeing the opening of Gourmet in Causeway Bay's Lee Gardens. With the new store successfully up and running, his attention will switch to managing what he describes as a "100 per cent refurbishment" of Great at Pacific Place, to give the longer established outlet a new look in response to changing consumer demand.

"We use different names because in the food hall business each has a unique personality and targets a different demographic," says Mr Wright. "We tailor them to the pace of the environment in which they sit and take account of the other retailers or brand-name stores which are nearby."

Extensive research is done into likely customer profiles and the projected catchment area before plans are finalised. In the case of Gourmet, this showed that the target clientele would be predominantly local Chinese, and emphasis was placed on finding the right balance between Asian and western foods.
Consequently, a higher percentage of Chinese, Japanese and Korean products was lined up, along with an exclusive brand of cakes and pastries from Taiwan. The designers also went for a more understated look and took account of the surroundings within the exclusive Lee Gardens centre. "The fine food business allows you to be flexible with your environment and selection of products," notes Mr Wright. "But the philosophy remains the same: when a customer comes in, it's about selling an experience and emotions. You have to offer the best products from around the world and realise the importance of the ambiance you create."

Diverse elements

He adds that this is also influenced by having expert staff, excellent visual merchandising, and by holding special promotions and demonstrations. All these elements are therefore incorporated in Gourmet's overarching strategy, which is to focus on educating the customer about regionality and seasonality. The intention is to help shoppers to understand and appreciate the variety of products from different regions within one country, instead of thinking of cuisines such as Italian or Indian as being national.

Mr Wright's own education in the all things relating to food has never stopped. It began in a family where his mother and brother were chefs and where food was a passion everyone shared. Initially, though, he was unsure which route to take to get into the business. While deciding, he studied economics and politics, completed a master's degree, and worked for the UK civil service.

This made him realise his true interests definitely lay elsewhere. So, with the help of family contacts, he started working in an up-market hotel restaurant where he learned two key lessons - never compromise on quality and aim for excellence in whatever you do.

After two years, he moved to London to open a new boutique hotel and restaurant. Despite courses being available, he had made a conscious decision not to attend a hotel management school. "I decided to learn from the bottom up so as to really understand the industry," Mr Wright says. "I felt that was the best way to learn the food business inside out and know everything about products and where they came from."

Planning ahead

Subsequently, he moved to Selfridges Department Store Group, where he opened three new food halls over the following six years. Later on, he set up his own food consultancy company and worked with clients such as Marks & Spencer and the Thai government on marketing and creative branding projects. His reputation became known within the industry and, therefore, when Watson wanted someone with global experience to lead their fine food division, they made an approach.

Mr Wright joined around three months ago and is delighted with progress to date. "Everything gets done much more quickly in Hong Kong, which means you can squeeze more into a shorter time frame and be a lot more productive," he says. As proof of this, he is already working on next year's special promotions, as well as doing long-term planning for possible new stores in Hong Kong and Asia.

With this in mind, the company is regularly on the lookout for shop floor, supervisory and management-level staff. However, all candidates must have a passion for food and an attitude which expects excellence. Mr Wright also emphasises that, no matter what your academic qualifications are, the best way to learn the business is by spending time on the shop floor and dealing with products and customers. "Without that experience, it's harder to move up quickly into buying or operations," he says.

Know the customer

  • Fine food retail outlets should be tailored to the local environment
  • Extensive market research is done into the catchment area and likely customer base
  • Those working in the field need a real passion for food
  • The best way to learn the business is by working your way up

Taken from Career Times 12 August 2005
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