Syed Asim Hussain is the co-founder of Black Sheep Restaurants, a Hong Kong-based hospitality group.
The pandemic has left restaurants all around the world between a rock and a hard place. But in Hong Kong, sadly, we were already getting used to being in this position. The pandemic came to us after six months of citywide unrest and, to some extent, we still have post-traumatic stress disorder from SARS.
‘In some ways, though, adversity can be a wonderful thing. It brings people together. How my restaurant group’s Covid-19 playbook has been shared all around the world still amazes me. When things started blowing up across the border in mainland China, we knew we had to do something fast. There’s only so much distance between Wuhan and Hong Kong; the virus would arrive at our doorstep soon.
So we came up with a kind of internal bible for how my hospitality group, Black Sheep Restaurants, would cope with Covid-19. We shared the 17-page document with the 1,000-plus staff working across our 26 restaurants. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with all the details of the advice in the handbook, which is comprehensive and practical, but three measures in particular have had a huge impact: 1. We make sure staff wear masks at all times; 2. We collect health and travel declaration forms from customers, so they can be contacted if there are confirmed cases of Covid-19 at the restaurant they were at; 3. We check customers’ temperatures and turn away anyone with a high fever.
‘The handbook has just two main overall goals: to keep staff safe and to keep them employed.’
We shared the document internally and later put it online so that other restaurants could also take a look. Almost overnight, the response was huge. We have had emails from people in Brazil, India, Japan, the UK, the US, Australia; from all over the world really. And many restaurants – from Eleven Madison Park in New York to TIRPSE in Japan – tell us they now use the rules to help them prepare for their reopening. Following the virality of the manual, we’ve also been advising policy makers here in Hong Kong. Oh, and the book has been translated into four languages.
Although the handbook is pretty long, really it has just two main overall goals: to keep staff safe and to keep them employed. And this means a lot to me. My mum always jokes that Black Sheep is a cult first and restaurant group second. And I think that echoes how a lot of people in the hospitality world feel. It’s a tight-knit community, so I’m thrilled that the manual has been shared far and wide. And to this day, Black Sheep has made good on the two main goals: things have been tougher than tough, of course, yet we haven’t made a single redundancy (having a positive cash flow has really helped).
I’ve learned more since the turn of the year than I have throughout the rest of my career combined. Thankfully, restaurants are an important part of the social fabric of big cities and have the ability to rebound strongly and quickly. I always say good restaurants are like jazz musicians – they have to improvise a lot. We’ll just have to keep improvising for a little while yet.’