Long working hours, a competitive environment and stringent product and service quality requirements can make Hong Kong's catering industry seem a daunting prospect for jobseekers.
However, Chiu Ho-yim, restaurant manager, Hak Ka Hut (Wong Tai Sin branch), Tao Heung Group Limited, has gone from strength to strength since first finding her niche seven years ago. Today, Ms Chiu proudly takes the role of leader, managing the daily operation of a team of more than 20 staff.
"I started without any relevant experience or industry knowledge, so I was truly looking forward to training opportunities," Ms Chiu says.
Fortunately for Ms Chiu, Tao Heung, which currently operates more than 60 restaurants in Hong Kong and mainland China, provided Ms Chiu with comprehensive in-house training, which set her firmly on her career path. "Technical skills or menu knowledge weren't difficult to acquire as long as you really want to. It is the customer service aspect of the job that requires a true passion and a level of dedication," she remarks.
Ms Chiu was initially guided by a mentor who took her through all the standard procedures and requirements for the job during a hands-on practicum period.
Ms Chiu was promoted to captain in a year and to senior caption in another three. Hard work and dedication paid off, and she was promoted to her current position in only 18 months.
While the promotions recognised her efforts, they also reflected the company's commitment to staff development, she points out.
"It's the wide-ranging training — from basic customer service and hygiene, to health and safety issues and management skills — that have kept me in the industry for so long," she notes, adding that the company's culture of encouraging staff development and internal promotion has been a major motivator.
"The trust and support from colleagues and supervisors over the years boosted my confidence. Hard work pays dividends — it has been worth going the extra mile," she says.
Tao Heung employs a systematic approach to staff training. For instance, while Chinese chefs traditionally pass on their skills according to a strict apprenticeship system, increasing competition is pushing the industry to change, notes Caroline Li, Tao Heung Group's human resources director.
"Managing a frontline operation means you're constantly running off your feet"
In 2002, the company established a systematic management approach requiring staff to undergo hands-on training according to their ranks and responsibilities. There is also a managerial promotion system in place, involving written tests, interviews with senior management and a 360-degree assessment.
Ms Chiu has come a long way and her next step up the career ladder will be to go through this system. This year she was given the opportunity to lead the successful launch of Hak Ka Hut's Wong Tai Sin branch.
Managing the busy eatery involves a 12-hour working day and dealing with large volumes of customers, but Ms Chiu particularly enjoys the interaction with people from many different walks of life.
"In my role, it is a prerequisite to be customer-oriented and to enjoy working with people. Diners have ever-increasing expectations regarding service and food quality, but I am always happy to see our customers return. Repeat business means that our hard work and good menu choices are recognised."
As a neighbourhood restaurant, Ms Chiu's branch of Hak Ka Hut has a particularly high level of interaction between staff and patrons.
She says, "Our relationships with regular customers are such that we know their preferred blends of tea and their favourite dishes. This is a very fulfilling aspect of my job."
She emphasises that support from the team and good internal relationships also contribute to a pleasant working environment.
Ms Chiu feels that one of the most important qualities needed to manage a team is to understand the needs of every individual member.
"Nobody can run a restaurant alone, so we encourage communication most of all," she concludes. "Managing a frontline operation means you're constantly running off your feet. The ability to foster team spirit and build rapport is essential."