With Supafood, his sustainably-sourced, budget-friendly fast casual eatery, Steven Wu is quietly ushering in a healthy eating revolution in Hong Kong. We talk to the inspiring founder and F&B stalwart about the economics of healthy food, what needs to change in the city’s restaurant industry and why his staff is his most important investment.
How Did Supafood Come About?
With Locofama and Sohofama, we wanted to show Hong Kongers that healthy food was not limited to vegetarian cuisine, and more importantly, that healthy food can be tasty and delicious. In a foodie-crazed city like Hong Kong, the emphasis is on flavor and taste above all else, so we made that our priority. While the restaurants are successful, we were often challenged by friends on the cost front: how could they materially improve their health if they were only able to dine at our restaurant once or twice a month? This dilemma became the founding mission behind Supafood. We knew we had to come up with a concept that was accessible, affordable, and with an large enough menu range that allowed for customers to visit multiple times a week without getting bored, whilst having a real impact on their eating habits, and their bodies! Supafood’s mission is to reinvent the way we view fast food, making it healthier, cheaper, and more convenient.
Can healthy, sustainably-grown food be affordable in Hong Kong?
The short answer is yes. It won’t happen overnight and many things need to change but it’s possible. The first step is that as consumers we start to better understand the importance and benefits of eating locally and seasonally, so that we can demand locally-grown produce and support our local farmers. Then we need to carefully incorporate technology and innovation in our farming practices. Being one of the world’s most populous cities forces us to be the most space efficient of food producers.
What are the biggest obstacles to eating healthy in Hong Kong?
To begin with, I think there is a real gap on what constitutes “eating healthy”. From the type of macros we ought to consume throughout the day, to where ingredients come from, the average person still needs a lot more education. For example, many people believe in eating lots of fruit. They remain unaware that fruits, though natural, are very high in sugar. Or they believe eating a bowl of lettuce makes for a nourishing meal, even though leaves on their own offer limited nutrition. A healthy diet requires variety. When it comes to produce, “eating the rainbow” is your best strategy for nutrient density, as different fruits and vegetables each come with their own unique package of nutrients. My rule of thumb is to consume everything in moderation: balance is key. I find that extreme eating habits and diets can be too harsh on our bodies.
That said, the biggest obstacle is having access to healthy, wholesome food at an affordable price. Recently, there are far more options in the healthy eating niche. The market for it is growing, which means prices will start to come down. I welcome this growth and hope more restauranteurs will choose to enter this space: we are all part of the same movement: the more choices on offer, the more affordable it can be for the customers.
What are the biggest challenges facing the F&B industry in Hong Kong?
As restaurant owners, the biggest challenges we face are keeping up with the high operational costs that are intrinsic to the F&B industry and evolving with market trends. In Hong Kong, these are huge obstacles. Our three major costs components are rent, labour and ingredients, all of which are especially high here. Rents are particularly crazy, spaces are scarce, and sourcing premium ingredients is expensive. We have to be creative and find ways to save on these costs so they are not all passed onto the end consumer. Further, Hong Kong customers get bored easily and want to try new things constantly. We are definitely treading a fine line between providing wholesome ingredients at the lowest price possible while maintaing a sustainable business operation.
How can the F&B industry initiate change in Hong Kong?
The city’s F&B industry is very powerful and has a large impact on people’s lives. There are thousands of F&B operators and most of us eat three times a day, so the industry affects pretty much all of us. It’s important for us to see ourselves as more than a restaurant: we are offering a lifestyle, building a community, supporting and growing an ecosystem. We understand the obstacles facing the F&B industry and we understand how to survive in it. We like to provide our venues to small businesses, host events for local startups, offer them a platform and a voice, bring like-minded people together and allow for the cross-pollination of ideas. That’s how the magic happens. New ideas come about, ones that initiate change as forces join together and allow us to be the pioneers of our generation. Education and raising awareness is key: when people are truly educated, that’s when the change will happen. Every time you eat you are making a choice about what you consume. On a collective level, that’s a powerful force.
What are realistic issues the government can help tackle through better regulation?
Regulation is important, sure, and we can talk about Hong Kong’s many out-of-date laws (most of which are nonsensical at this point) but that’s not what moves the change needle. What we need is government support in a greater sense: promoting creativity, bolstering startups, allowing for co-creation, providing affordable real estate, offering business sponsorship, supporting local farmers, encouraging food tech innovation and assisting the next generation of farmers. Hong Kong needs to be a self-sustaining city, and a sustainable one. We need to catch up on recycling and waste management. How can a city with one of the best public transportation systems in the world and surplus government funds have one of the worst records for sustainability in the developed world? It’s more of a question of refocusing efforts on what moves us forward rather than simply changing existing rules and regulations.
How important is it to source local ingredients? How realistic is it given that 95%+ of the city’s food supply is imported?
Importing food results in a large carbon footprint, there’s no getting around it. But the reality is that not everything can be sourced locally. Within the team, we do debate the point: how to support local when supply is inconsistent? In an ideal world, we would buy organic produce from local-farmers year-round. It is important to eat seasonally and locally: the local fruits and vegetables harmonize with the weather cycles and offer our bodies what they need when they need it. It doesn’t really make sense for us to eat winter vegetables from Australia when it’s summer in Hong Kong, does it?
Further, it is vital that we support sourcing local ingredients in order to revive the city’s farming industry. It’s economics 101: supply and demand. If we demand more locally grown food, more farms will appear to fill that demand. Thanks to growing foodtech innovation (which will hopefully garner more attention and support from the government), we can drastically reduce the amount of food we import. We put a great deal of emphasis on celebrating chefs, I think it’s about time we celebrated our local farmers and food producters, as well as the ingredients they grow so passionately.
You’ve talked about your quest to be more transparent with customers about costs and margins. What’s behind that?
A typical restaurant aims for around 10 to 15% net profit. Let’s say a salad costs the customer $100. 30% is food cost, 20% is rent, 30% is labour, 5% is utilities, 5% is marketing and other miscellaneous costs. That leaves us with a $10 dollar profit. So knowing it costs us $90 to produce that salad, which includes sourcing the best ingredients possible, paying rent to our landlord, making sure our staff can support their families, ensuring the restaurant stays afloat, keeping our lights on as a sustainable business in order to keep making the food you want to eat, are you willing to pay the $100 for that salad?
We are not a non-profit or a social enterprise, but we are not an organization that wants to squeeze every last dollar from the consumer either. So scratch the service charge, forget tipping, what if we told you we charge maximum 10-15% to give you what you want? We’ll give you full transparency to the last mile. If you want 100% organic ingredients sourced from across the globe, we can do so. With the associated price tag, of course. If you want local ingredients only, we can do so as well, our take is the same either way. It’s your choice if you want a fine dining price tag or not. This is how we operate Supafood.
You have a very unique approach to managing your staff. Can you tell us more about that?
Working in the F&B industry is very tough in Hong Kong: it involves a lot of sacrifice. Growing up abroad, I was raised respecting the F&B industry as a decent career path with the possibility of work life balance. In Hong Kong, that’s often not the case. F&B employees can expect 10-hour work shifts plus commuting time. It’s easily a 12-hour day away from your family and children, not to mention that you will be working weekends (peak time for the industry).
The people you work with tend to become like your second family. F&B workers have no shortage of choices in Hong Kong, so if you want to keep your staff, they need to feel valued. It’s our job as employers to make sure we show our appreciation. We want our staff to feel like they are part of a team, that they are looked after. We are a very flat organization: I often just refer to our employees as “colleagues” rather than as staff members.
One thing that we like to do when we onboard a new staff member is take some tine to understand what their goals and ambitions are so that we can help them achieve them. For example, a supervisor might want to be a manager one day, or a sous chef might be aiming to be a head chef. Perhaps the head chef is looking to be an owner sometime in the future. We make sure to help them up-skill so they move up within our organization or pursue their career elsewhere. If one of our colleagues wants to pursue a long term career within the F&B industry, I really want to be the person that helps make their dream come true.
As wellness entrepreneurs, we also hope to inspire our team with our vision for a healthier lifestyle. We want them to live and breathe the brand so that eventually healthy habits become second nature. In that vein, we regularly organize group fitness classes, local farms visits, camping trips and other group outings.
Our ethos is that if we do well as owners, our staff should do well too. It’s about building the business together, and sharing our success together, not to mention in an equitable manner. Together we can embrace each other’s creative input, ensure quality and service is the best it can be for our customers, and review the top and bottom line in order to ensure we are running a sustainable business. We want our staff to manage the business as if it’s their own.
At the end of the day, we can’t go it alone. We all need each other. Not to mention that it’s much easier to face the day’s challenges working hand in hand and leveraging each other’s strengths and skills.
Image courtesy of Steven Wu.