F&B in Hong Kong is booming, new restaurant groups are coming up, new names, new concepts, but there are players in the industry that have been delighting the palate of HK inhabitants and visitors for decades.
Retail in Asia has met Mr. Sandeep Sekhri, CEO at Dining Concepts some time ago, to understand what is the secret behind the success of his company and what are the key elements new players need to consider while embarking in the F&B adventure in HK. After this interview, we realized part of Dining Concepts’ success is also the unique ambience of their concepts.
Mastermind behind some of them is the designer Ashley Sutton, who is now in town to complete its latest creation to be unveiled 18th August, Dragon Fly, at the new Tai Kwun Central Police Station Compound. Retail in Asia got the chance to interview him to find out about the source of inspiration for his projects in HK.
RiA : How did your collaboration with Dining Concepts begin?
Ashley : I love working in Hong Kong and have had a great relationship with the owners of the establishments. The owner invited me to look at a space and we just started from there. You have to understand I didn’t choose to go into the restaurant space. I feel confident I can sign anything, whether it is a restaurant, bar, library or hotel. My main focus is that it is a beautiful space that fits the clients scope of work. The city is so vibrant and pretty, I was keen on having things happen.
RiA : What is your source of inspiration for your design projects?
Ashley : I do a lot of research on myths, legends and fairytales in history. I combine it with imagination. Very often I can see it when I close my eyes before I even sketch.
RiA : When you design F&B concepts destined to HK, what is the image of the target customer you have in mind?
Ashley : Anyone. I do not focus on a very specific demographics for the town or even for the space. Hong Kong is a very sophisticated place where there are a lot of interesting people; very motivated and incredibly educated. It allows me to do more elaborated concepts while simply creating a beautiful space. They get the concept from experiencing the atmosphere and appreciating the details. Good food, drinks and service will do the rest and appeal to a very broad spectrum of customers.
RiA : As across industries, everybody is talking about ‘experience’, what is it for you and how do you create it in your projects?
Ashley : In general ‘experience’ is to read the market and predict trends I guess. For me, I worked in mining and sketched fairies as a hobby. These sketches ended up being a trilogy named The Iron Fairies, which led to a factory in Thailand to make the merchandise.
The factory space is based on the books so my staff could live in the story and get creative. As friends and friend of friends kept coming by, we added a bar and a kitchen, and there, the Iron Fairies bar was born. Sometimes life just happens, what you make of it is what matters. Every opportunity reminds me of past experience where I can focus on design details, light and sound to make the whole space come to life, so people can feel like they escaped into a different world.
RiA : When you design a F&B concept, how important is it for you to match the ambience with the food?
Ashley : It is intertwined. The initial idea of the design has to match with the type of dining experience and feel. Take Dear Lilly for example, I spent an hour there, just getting the feel for the venue. I looked at all the customers walking around and noticed a lot of them were girls. This space has a lot of glass with a breathtaking view of the harbour. It has an outdoor aspect with trees for fairy lights, which makes it a bit more intimate and romantic. At first, I was thinking of creating a magical floral shop, which could be a cute little cocktail place. The menu and the cocktails are tailored to the place too, they are just as romantic and detailed as the uniforms, or the staircases or the chandeliers. It is all one story.
RiA : You mentioned Dear Lilly, and we know there is a specific story behind based on the desire to resurrect handwritten letters in the digital age. Can you tell us more about the concept?
Ashley : I wanted to work on a project that is unlike anything I have ever done before. I wanted people to step into a fairytale and for every detail to perfectly match what I had envisioned in my head. The concept is inspired by the florist you can find on the boulevards in Paris. It is my tribute to love.
The bar has a kinetic ceiling where floral bouquets and real handwritten and hand calligraphed love letters hang from and sway rhythmically, right in front of your eyes but just out of reach. The enlarged heart shaped jewelry box-booths are inspired by my female cousins. I grew up with cousins who always had secret boxes of stuff, often small trinkets that are keepsakes with a very personal sentiment.
The place is filled from floor-to-ceiling with dried flowers, antique ornaments, keepsakes and of course love letters. Now everybody is on WhatsApp, Wechat, Line, Facebook, and I have always been really inspired by love letters between WWI and WWII soldiers and their sweethearts at home.
The letters are very authentic; meaning those are real love letters; some from the soldiers that we found, but also newer ones that we received from people all over the world. The paper is vintage, some of it 70 years old.
RiA : Any upcoming project we should keep an eye on in Asia-Pacific?
Ashley : I am working on a project for the Kempinski hotel in China that I am very excited about, and the Dragonfly bar in the new Tai Kwun Central Police Station Compound, which will be on soft opening from 18th August.
We are doing something very special across from the magistracy and the old Victoria Prison. It will be in keeping with the overall police station design period and consist of beautiful hand cast table tops and bar tops, giving a truly high class feel to the venue that will be timeless.