The general outlook for the catering industry looks bright in 2006 with people dining out like never before, but restaurant owners and operators are nevertheless worried that rapidly rising costs could take the shine off things. With rental rates for commercial outlets in the prime districts expected to increase by a minimum of eight to 10 per cent this year, many are already assessing how they can cut operational costs in order to remain in profit.
Watami (China) Company Limited, which operates a major chain, has already taken steps to economise on fuel and resources. "We are looking to cut electricity and water usage and avoid breakages of cups and plates. Just this could save us thousands of dollars," notes human resources and administration manager Miranda Lai.
The company pioneered the development of the "casual restaurant" market in Japan, and now has around 500 outlets which allow customers to enjoy good food in a friendly environment where they can feel at home. Expansion in Japan was followed by a move into overseas market and, since 2001, 14 restaurants have been opened in Hong Kong, employing 400 full-time and 200 part-time staff.
Ms Lai points out that more than 1,000 new restaurants have opened locally after the SARS epidemic, which has created strong demand in the sector for qualified personnel. This situation will only intensify in 2006, with new hotels looking to hire good staff and therefore providing additional competition. "Given the choice, many people choose to work in hotels because of the better working environment and the type of customers," she explains.
However, Ms Lai is confident that Watami will be able to meet its recruitment targets. "We provide staff with comprehensive training as juniors and groom them to reach the top," she says. "Working with us, they have a promising career path and can expect to move up quickly."
The company usually takes on secondary school leavers and graduates of Vocational Training Council courses for both kitchen and frontline positions. The corporate policy is to promote a clean-cut, healthy image, so all new recruits should be ready to follow a strict code of internal regulations which rules out smoking, drinking, gambling, wearing ornaments, having dyed hair, or using foul language at work. This policy reflects the Japanese culture of being polite and hygienic, and encourages loyalty and commitment to the job.
In terms of skills, staff are taught to provide customers with personal style of service. For example, they should lean forward and face customers when taking orders and must remain patient at all times, while ensuring everything runs smoothly and efficiently.
Ms Lai says that, up to now, company training in Hong Kong has focused mainly on staff attitudes and hard skills. In 2006, employees who have three to four years' experience will be given more instruction in management skills as part of an ongoing succession plan. Those who have performed well have the chance to attend a six-month training programme organised by a consultancy firm to learn decision-making, leadership and motivational skills as preparation for promotion.
Frontline staff can advance from an entry-level position as a crew member to become trainer, senior crew member, crew leader, and subsequently shop manager. Salaries for crew start at HK$7,600 and move up in line with seniority and allowances. More senior staff have the opportunity to be sent to Japan for work experience and to learn more about the company's culture.
Ms Lai says that as the company expands in the mainland, they expect to hire locally in view of comparative salary levels. However, some Hong Kong-based staff might be transferred on short-term assignments to provide the necessary training.