“Creativity begins with a spreadsheet.” - Malcolm Wood.
When we interview restaurant owners, the story usually starts with a well-traveled chef who sees a gap in his local home market, and returns to set up an eatery in an up and coming neighbourhood; the romance of foreign cuisine and the chef's determination to work for him or herself instead of someone else spurs the new business.
Malcolm's story is different in that he approaches a new restaurant venture from a business angle. He asks questions like - will this location provide sustainable traffic? Is the space large enough to house a kitchen offering this type of cuisine or range of menu items? While his approach is comparatively more operational, it might just well be the key to his success in building an international culinary empire. As the Co-Founder, Global Managing and Culinary Director of Maximal Concepts, an award-winning restaurant group based in Hong Kong with restaurants located in Korea, Las Vegas, Vancouver, Bangkok, and Hong Kong, Malcolm Wood shares valuable insight into how he spots and evaluates an opportunity.
If you are thinking about starting your own restaurant or trying to figure out how to improve the operations and profitability of your restaurant, this interview is a must-read.
Malcolm Wood: M
P: Did you have an interest in food since you were little? What/who were some of your influences growing up that got you into cooking?
M: I grew up surrounded by family that liked to cook, especially by mother and my grandmother who taught me a lot about cooking as a very young child when I lived in Taiwan. I used to come home to her cooking from school everyday; she used to cook for the whole family (9 uncles and aunts) and always made something new and delicious.
I also travelled to 12 different countries by the time I was in my early 20’s so I got exposed to different cultures and cuisines and was fascinated by everything I saw. If you look at our organization today, we’re quite eclectic in the type of cuisines that we have.
I also grew up in England where I spend a lot of time with my granddad who was a great cook as well. He really enjoyed going to local farms in the English countryside to buy his products directly from farmers. My granddad would take me as a young child to these farms. I started understanding where our products came from, understanding the farmers that you are buying your products from. This was added as a philosophy to our restaurant group as well.
P: Having lived in so many different countries, do you have like a favourite cuisine or favourite – that you always go back to?
M: It's like asking me to choose a favorite child. When I'm at home, I cook Chinese food 90% of the time, and most people find that quite surprising. But I think it's quite difficult to get real honest home-cooked Chinese food in restaurants, so that's kind of what I default to when I'm at home. I like to have lots of vegetables, I like a variety of different dishes, so that’s my type of comfort food.
P: Being in the food industry, you often try and experiment with different cuisines. Do you travel often to get inspiration?
M: I think you need to travel because inspiration comes from input, and then you will have output on different things or creative ideas. Whether it's reading cookbooks, watching cooking programs or travelling, experiencing it for yourself is the best of those three things. I think I had quite a lot of inspiration at an early age, I got to see and live in 12 different countries. I lived in Italy, India, UK etc, so I had a lot of inspiration at an early age for the sorts of food that we were cooking.
P: Having been in all these areas, what's an interesting dish that you could recall that mixes all these different elements and really stands out for you?
M: We’ve just opened a restaurant in Hong Kong called John Anthony, it is the first fully sustainably-minded Chinese restaurant in Asia. We looked at sustainability has a whole, in the design, the materials we were using, the products that were using - it was a really interesting project. John Anthony was the first Chinese to obtain a British citizenship back in the 1700s. He did this because he travelled often by sea, along the spice route to the UK. It was common for local Chinese sailors to pick up Indian spices that are used in their Chinese recipes. I thought it was quite an interesting story because it was similar to where I’ve lived. So we used a lot of Turmeric and curry powder and in some of the Chinese dishes, for example, Turmeric xiao long bao. We are definitely not afraid to play with the flavors as long as there’s a genuine story that happened, I always try keep it to actual facts. None of our restaurants are a fusion restaurant, it's more that we are creative with the ingredients and the storytelling and the facts that we have uncovered.
P: With a background in Finance, do you think that it has given you an advantage in the F&B field?
M: I set up my first hospitality company 19 years ago when I was first out of school with my partner Mr. Parker, who is still my partner today. but I studied finance and financial law because I thought this degree would help me with business. Then we were in China, had a couple of places in Xin Tian Di, and in London. Then I moved to Hong Kong and was offered to work in the banking industry, so I decided to spend a few years to work in that industry. After two years, I realized it wasn’t as relevant and as fun as what I was doing before, so I came back into the F&B business full-time at that point. but yeah I think of a restaurant as a small, big business - so like a big business has to have various departments and be good at everything, whether it is marketing or operations. A restaurant encompasses pretty much every aspect of a large business requirement, and that means you have to get most of those things right to be successful. So having the background in Finance, it helps you understand the needs of the business.
P: When you opened your first restaurant, what were some of the challenges you experienced and learned to overcome?
M: if I was giving advice to anyone it would be that you have to stay reactive once the restaurants open, so something like, if one of those five things I just mentioned is going wrong, you have to react very quickly to get it fixed. I think you have to analyze where are you going into as well; you really have to understand the demographic, the foot traffic, and you have to have a really good financial model to understand if you are going to be successful for the size of the restaurants, the prices on the menu etc.
I always say creativity started with a spreadsheet, whereas a lot of restaurants will have a cool menu that they want to cook and decide to find a place it right away. But in a city like Hong Kong, you need to look at the locations, and then because there are so many restaurants around each one of possible locations, you have to look at your competitors around you and you can't just open a restaurant where there's another three around you and expect to be successful.
If you decide that you don't want to be in a prime space, you have to have good marketing and you have to be able to pull the crowd to visit your restaurant. So I think a lot of those small mistakes that you make, you make early on in your career - by choosing the wrong location, by maybe doing something that's too competitive. We were very fortunate that our first restaurants in China were in Xin Tian Di in Shanghai. It was difficult to get a space there, but at such a prime location, we didn’t have to worry about filling the restaurant. The problem they had was what was the right combination of dish offerings for the customers, and the size of the team..etc.
P: Having been in Asia’s culinary scene for a long period of time, how have the culinary landscape evolved and how have you change the way you operate a restaurant space on that those changes?
M: I think Asia had a bit of catching up to do in comparison to a place like the UK. I think if you looked at 2000-2005 with the start of the rise of the celebrity chefs, I would say, with better cooking programs on televisions, for example, Jamie Oliver back then engaged with the audience, making them care about the farms and the products they were shopping. All of which happened in the UK in the late 90s to 2005. Then there was the nose-to-tail revolution from people like Fergus Henderson, who really inspired a lot of people including Anthony Bourdain. I was in the UK during this period of time and that really inspired me as a restauranteur. So when I came to Asia that was kind of my main focus, we wanted to do a restaurant where we know our farms, because in Hong Kong there are no farms, so it is even harder to understand where your products are coming from.
By 2005, there was a wave of new restaurants that were coming up in Hong Kong which were outside of hotels, outside the larger restaurant groups, they were created by individuals who cared about the craft and that was the start of change that happened between 2005-2007. We began to see individual concepts popping up and there was sort of this sustainably minded or sourcing revolution where people were buying their food from organic stores, buying animal products where they were well-raised, which later caught on in Hong Kong and since then the push has been towards health, single use plastic, and things like that. When we opened Mott 32, that was kind of another little sort of revolution in Chinese cuisine because the only international Chinese restaurant that everyone kind a new at that point was Hakkasan, which was founded in the UK. If you wanted a high-end Chinese meal in Hong Kong, you would go to a white tablecloth banquet type thing at a five-star hotel. So it was really the first time people were starting to see a Chinese restaurant with great cocktails and great wine programs getting mixed together with a sort of what people described as a Western type architecture or design. When we built Mott 32, we we did things that we thought were kind of daring at the time, like leaving concrete walls bare and not finishing them, doing graffiti on the walls and things like that. We have subsequently started a bit of a revolution in Chinese food in Hong Kong since then.
P: The food and beverage industry is one of the most competitive industries of all, how do you make sure your restaurants remain on the top of the list?
M: I think it’s really simple - you have to be listening to what the customer says. You have to constantly try your own food, you have to constantly bring something new to the table. I believe that you just do a menu that that you think is good and you leave it there, people get bored of it. So we change our menus, cocktails, specials often and see what's working and we go with the trend. With the recent rise of people’s concern with what they are putting into their body, where it's coming from, the health aspect, we changed up a lot of our menus to really add in health. We are adding wheatgrass shots, more turmeric, more salads, more grains, quinoa. etc and being adaptive and going with what people actually want.
P: You’ve invested in numerous restaurants in the past. What were some of the essential points of those restaurants that convinced you to invest in those businesses? What top three things do you look for?
M: We don’t start with cuisine, the name or the brand. These are the last things we look at. When I see a space, I have to see an opportunity at the location and look at the city. Some cities can’t generate the right income for a certain standard of restaurant. For example, you can’t put a 3-star Michelin restaurant in certain South East Asian cities as they don’t have the right demographic. So it is important to understand where you’re putting your restaurant; it has to be in a key location where you have enough people to sustain the business. Once you have that, then you have to look at the competitors around you to find out what’s lacking, what’s working and what isn’t. So you start to build a concept like that. I think when you do it that way around you are more likely to be successful than trying to take an idea of favorite food that you like to cook and then finding a location for it. Or if you do know your cuisine type, you have to take your model that you have already built and you know the average check price, you can see if it works for a particular location. So you need to have the model built first in any case. If you build a new concept, you shouldn't be too fixed with that concept. The other thing is when we do a new concept, we don’t fix down the brand while we're designing it. You have to stay fluid right till the end, which means that as you are designing it your idea of what the restaurant should be keeps evolving to allow the idea to get better.
P: Mott 32 being one of the restaurants you own, has achieved great success. With 4 locations across the globe, one of which is in Vancouver, how does your team work with the local group to ensure brand consistency while also catering to local needs?
M: Mott 32 has to be a certain size with its dim sum team and the restaurant also serves main dishes. It needed over 4000 ft.² and there are not many opportunities in that location with that much space. Vancouver feels like a second home in every aspect since my family lived here for 12 years. I think the restaurant could really flourish in Vancouver with their fresh ingredients, alignment with the food group’s values and mentality.
For Mott 32 in Vancouver, there were three things we wanted: 1) good partner providing a space in downtown at a large size, as they are doing dim sum, main dishes, and peking duck. 2) A large team requires a large restaurant and a large number of customers coming into restaurant to be able to execute it, so it needed to be over 4000 or 5000 ft.² So to get a location that was in downtown and of a certain size…there's not many opportunities that come up for restaurants to get a space like that. 3) Another thing is that my family lived here for 12 years, so I visited Vancouver often and it is like a second home. I truly enjoy the products here, the fisheries are regulated, the outdoors, it was a place where restaurant could really flourish with the local ingredients and same mentality that our restaurant group had, which I knew that people in Vancouver cared about.
P: Who are the top three people who has had a significant impact on your career and why?
M: Being from the UK, Fergus Henderson (owns St. JOHN) is definitely one of them. He really inspired people on what nose-to-tail was, he had a book talking about this and I even have a signed copy of this book. He really taught a lot of chefs to go back into caring about utilizing the whole animal, not wasting food, and the value of cooking.
A traditionalist who cared about food and its origins and traditional ways of cooking. Jamie Oliver is also one of them, however cheesy that sounds, but his first original TV series in England really changed our generation to really care about cooking. Before Jamie Oliver, it was hard to find rice wine, dark or light soy sauce, sesame oil etc. I think he did a lot for the culinary scene globally and inspired the masses to care about food. I’d also have to mention Heston Blumenthal, a chef that was weird, wonderful, experimental, and crazy with his food, for example his bacon and egg ice cream. He showed a lot of people what was possible with food and inspired a lot of chefs with possibilities with cooking.
We want to thank Malcolm for taking the time for the interview, teaching us and our readers so much about how to start and run a restaurant business. His insights are applicable across any type of retail business dependent on foot traffic, as he emphasizes the importance of assessing and evaluating the probability of success of a location. After all, if the numbers don’t work, the business won’t work. Given these succinct pointers on how to improve your culinary venture, what changes will you make?
Photo courtesy of Maximal Concepts