Conquering the burger scene in Hong Kong in just a little over a year, Honbo is the place to go now to fulfil your burger cravings. Even the name (which means burger in Cantonese) has a winning “ring” to it. I had the extreme pleasure to speak with Michael Chan, the owner of Honbo, to discuss how and why Honbo has succeeded, where the future is headed for the burger joint, as well as the celebrities that have been to his restaurant.
Tell us about who you are, how and where you grew up, and how you got to where you are today.
I grew up mainly in Hong Kong and went to a public school that was very hardcore Asian – La Salle in Kowloon Tong until Form 3 (equivalent to about Grade 8). I left to Vancouver to study high school and completed grade 12 there then I went to Montreal to study in McGill University and did biochemistry for 4 years. I continued studying in Ireland and attended a medical school. After 1.5 years of practice, I had to relocate back to Hong Kong due to family issues and decided not to transfer my medical practice license to Hong Kong as it was just too tedious. Also, I wanted to pursue something in F&B (Food and Beverages). I didn’t had any F&B experience before Honbo.
Why did you start a burger joint? Is it your first time?
Yes this is my first time opening a burger joint, in fact, any business ever. I opened a burger joint because I believe that there was a space in the burger market in Hong Kong that wasn’t fulfilled. I proved to be correct after 1.5 years after opening up Honbo because now, even Shake Shack has opened and will continue to open more shops in Hong Kong. And Shake Shack is a listed company that does craft refined burgers so why would they come here unless they see an opening in the market.
Too many restaurants in Hong Kong focus on being a burger restaurant, and I believe Hong Kong people do not get the concept of sitting down with a fork and knife to enjoy a burger that costs HKD 150; that concept just doesn’t work here. Unless the burger was really fancy… but even then it wouldn’t be good enough on its own. This dine in burger restaurant concept is similar to copying Byron Burger in London, but if they purely copy the concept without catering to the local palette, I don’t think it will be very successful.
Ultimately, it all comes down to quality. It doesn’t matter what the setting is or where you are located in the city as long as you have a good product, there will always be room in Hong Kong and in F&B. When we first opened there were no good burgers in Hong Kong.
Was there a reason to have it in the Star Street district?
Because I wanted to be near my competitors, Beef & Liberty and Butchers’ Club. I made this choice to prove that if I can survive and beat them at their own turf, that means the concept is solid and the product is solid. It was also a challenge for myself to see if I’m correct and to get myself to compete at a high level. In fact, I would say the effect is twofold – let’s say someone does half the stuff, and another person completes the other half, it’s like putting them in the same sentence in an article… if it’s in the same sentence it means they are equal. If the product is inherently more shit then you wouldn’t even have a comparison in the first place. Now when people think about burgers, they think about Beef & Liberty, Butchers’ Club, and Honbo. At that time when I started, people thought I was crazy because I was competing against two companies that had more money.
Also, I was observing the trends of what other countries were doing versus what Hong Kong was doing. Hong Kong has a strong F&B scene in general; however, we lack something fundamental which is that we like to copy but we don’t know what to copy. We don’t succeed in copying from other countries because we don’t understand enough and we don’t have enough time to understand what we’re copying. We think that we can take something from Country X and put it in Hong Kong and it will be successful, but there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes and in the food… it’s not just about copying the dishes; execution is also important.
I saw what London and New York was doing, and London even had Shake Shack and Five Guys, but these “finer chains” in London were starting to fall out in favor of more “indie chains”, which is what people started to prefer.
Anyway, I would say burgers are quite personal, that there is no universal and objectively best burger in the world. It just depends on how you like it, whether it’s because you prefer a softer bun or leaner meat… how can one shop serve all the different types and be the best. You never hear which burger is the best in United States, it varies even within States, every single state has their own preference. I believe Hong Kong can reach that level of burger scene and that there will always be a place for us.
What would you say is the most challenging aspect of running a restaurant so far?
I never had a restaurant and this is my first entrepreneurial venture.
How has social media played an important aspect in your marketing? What’s two social media strategies you use to get them to your restaurant?
I completely agree that social media is huge in helping us with marketing. That said, we never spent any money on marketing. Everything has been organic – we didn’t even pay the press to cover us, we did the interviews for free, we didn’t pay people to come to us.
Second thing is we don’t specifically convert our Instagram or social media users to come to our restaurant, we just push out content and post on a week to week and consistent and frequent basis. Everything we post has to fit in our universal theme with the grid that we already have. Actually, we don’t even focus much on Facebook, it’s more on Instagram and PR media and maintaining good relations with the press and the other chefs and restaurants, and also local suppliers and local beer breweries.
All our marketing budget is used for content generation. No specific strategies to convert IG followers, no marketing campaigns, just pushing content out there.
What makes Honbo different from all the other burger joints in Hong Kong? Or more generally, what is the overall concept behind Honbo?
We are completely independent and not part of a corporation, it’s a local home grown by Hong Kong people, I’m from Hong Kong and it’s a Hong Kong brand. Everything that we do is in house. We source as many local ingredients as possible. Some restaurants are proud that they import every single thing in the restaurant, but we’re not like that. We are a burger joint, not a three star Michelin restaurant.
Why is burger often resembled as a food staple in United States? Because burgers there, often their lettuce is from US, their tomato is from US, the potato flour, which is abundant in US, is of course also in US. And the potatoes are dehydrated to create this potato flour, and all these US ingredients make the burger quintessentially American even though the dish did not originate from US. Yet, what also defines these burgers is the spirit is from US. In N Out has never expanded outside of their solid suppliers because that’s how important local ingredients are to them and that’s why they are so successful.
People have lost the essence of what makes a really good burger – it’s the freshness and the simplicity of the ingredients. When something is so simple, there’s nothing to hide from behind it… that’s why lots of local burger joints do burgers such as foie gras burger or crazy burgers or lobster or wagyu beef from Japan burgers. If you do the basic product very well, you wouldn’t need any bells and whistles, the customers will come back because they appreciate them.
Some burgers in Hong Kong, it’s just bite and swallow. For us, we purposely want our buns to be chewy and depending on which menu item you get, the meat is also chewy as well.
We are constantly trying to improve our burgers, although I’d say it took about 6 months before we decided on the items on our menu.
What is it that makes a really good burger?
Just source the best product in Hong Kong like our lettuce is grown in Hong Kong, which I believe is better than having them imported from United States because locally grown foods will always be more fresh.
Your favorite burger in Honbo?
Double cheeseburger with bacon.
What drinks goes well with your burgers?
Beers. We support local breweries; my favorite is Moonzen.
What celebrities have been to your restaurant so far?
James blunt. Some local celebrities – Fiona Sit, Hins Cheung.
What’s the craziest, coolest, or weirdest situation you’ve encountered so far in Honbo?
Besides James Blunt coming, which I only knew about after he left and all the customers were telling me who he was, was the time that on my birthday, the kitchen caught on fire and the electricity went out so I had to come from my birthday dinner to fix it.
Do you think the recent opening of Shake Shack will disrupt your business?
Yes I think so, but I don’t know yet. It depends on a couple of factors… are they opening closer to us? If they open let’s say in Pacific Place then it may cut our business during lunch time. But overall bigger picture will Shake Shack be detrimental to our business I would say no. In fact, they would just be promoting a burger culture to further eliminate a lot of other competitions that aren’t good enough. Also, it will deter new competitors from coming rather than eliminating the existing new players. New players will not come in since Shake Shack is expanding and Five Guys is planning to open this year as well. As a sane person or a big restaurant group or small joint you will not want to venture into this. Whether existing players continue to become competitors in five years is another story. With that said, even if Five Guys and Shake Shack were opened in Hong Kong, people will always go look for something more, and we will be there because we have a unique product.
There’s been a lot of food fads in Hong Kong. Not sure if you were here, but Krispy Kreme came like a hurricane and then disappeared. Do you think burgers will follow the same fate? Why or why not? Where do you see it heading?
I don’t think burgers will fall off. Krispy Kreme was never a HK diet, donuts are not part of HK diet, and I don’t think Krispy Kreme even made any money. Hong Kong people just didn’t like that stuff. You can see that McDonald’s is ingrained in the Hong Kong culture, but Hong Kong people don’t understand what a donut is, but they know what’s a good burger and a bad burger. There are many burger joints in Hong Kong, like McDonald’s, local cha can teng’s like Si Sun… burgers are not foreign to HK people. You’ll be amazed how many local people in HK crave burger in Honbo and claim that it’s one of their favorite burgers and I didn’t really expect that. Burgers are so ingrained in our culture and pop culture and media that burger is quintessential to Hong Kong food culture, so it’s not going to be over anytime soon. In fact, the burger scene hasn’t reached it’s maximum point or has even come close because the selection was so shit.
How would you say the burger or hip restaurant scene is different from Vancouver/Montreal compared to Hong Kong?
Montreal is one of the best food scenes I’ve ever seen. They are very traditional French cuisine but they are also a very creative cuisine. Montreal has this “fuck you” attitude as if they just do whatever they want. Vancouver has a lot of Japanese and Asian food before I left the city but the F&B scene just wasn’t there, although I believe it has changed dramatically since then. But Montreal is the most inspiring place because their combinations, their ingredients, I’ve never seen or heard of them being put together like they did. If I had to describe their cooking, it would be home cooking on crack.
What are your future business ambitions either with Honbo or something else?
Continuing to expand in Hong Kong is the first step, then Southeast Asia.
Any role models or people that inspire you?
Elon Musk. The chef who created Au Pied Cochon in Montreal, Martin Picard. By the way, Au Pied Cochon means feet of the pig in French. Both of them have that “don’t tell me what to do” and sky’s the limit attitude, the ‘there is nothing that is impossible’ attitude. They are very anti-authority. I think to have done what I’ve done, you would need some kind of craziness. I left a nice and comfortable job. There is no linear progression in this field. As a doctor, you become doctors for many years then you can open up your own clinic, there is no discrepancy. For us, our outcome is not fixed – we might even close down tomorrow if Shakeshack decides to take shop next to us.
Is there something in life that you regret so far that you don’t mind sharing?
How do you live your life? What sort of motto do you live by?
I believe you don’t need to know anything. Whatever you need to know, you will know it when you need to. The mistake that you make would be a mistake you needed to make it then in order for you to learn. The pain and the disappointment are part of your learning process. I hate it when people say that it was an unexpected problem, because all problems are unexpected otherwise you would have foreseen all the problems you would have faced and solved it.
I also really strongly believe in having the proper attitude. If not knowing anything stopped you from doing it, it means that you didn’t put your foot down to learn and do it. People are more kind and willing to tell you if you are willing to learn, and you can learn from the internet and books and eventually you will know more than a normal person and over time you will become an expert at it.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes; making mistakes and failing while going forward at the same time are key parts of being an entrepreneur. People gloss over how busy and terrible things were. Gogovan in Hong Kong is now huge, but even they were on the verge of bankruptcy 2 or 3 times. There’s a Chinese idiom that says that if you win, nobody cares about all the shitty things that have happened. Just look at Jack Ma and Alibaba – now he can say whatever he wants because of success… his past KFC stories he can joke about it now, but if he had failed, then he couldn’t make that joke. Your attitude should be to keep failing forward and laugh at all the mistakes and shrug off all the feelings and hopefully one day you can look back and laugh about it.
It’s just like doctors – you wouldn’t expect them to know all the details in the world about anatomy and medicine before you pursue this career. If you want to do it, you do it. Obviously, you would need some preparation beforehand though.
Anything else you would like to add?
Honbo has come quite far from one year because the product is good. I also strongly believe that branding is everything. To this day and age, if I want to compete with established players, branding is everything, because branding makes you look bigger than one shop. It’s the most important part – how you are perceived.
With branding, a small shop doesn’t have to be just a hole in the wall thing. However, with branding, you have to pay attention to the shop’s cleanliness, the shop design, the periphery, the goodies; it’s all part of the experience.
The position of Honbo is in such a weird place that it’s important people need to remember the name and where you are and that’s why branding helps with that. If they get your Instagram and it looks good and pretty it suddenly doesn’t become just a hole in the wall. If it works it works, there’s no food traffic around our area so you’d be just waiting to die.
You have to remember the name and brand because it takes some physical effort to get to our location. If they come again and again, that means your branding exercise has done something right.
Yes, both food and branding are important, but I would even argue that food is an extension of branding, and neither one is more important than the other. If you go to a Ralph Lauren coffee shop you would expect a nice cup of coffee. I see those restaurants with banner sides that use a marker with their name on it, that doesn’t work. With a really great product, it means more money, and it also means better branding.
Hungry after reading this blog? So am I. Head over to 6-7 Sun Street (near Star Street and near Pacific Place 3) to get your burger now! If you tell Michael that you read about his interview on my blog Travel with a Butterfly, you will get a 10% discount on the meals. Promotion offer ends on July 13, 2018.