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Welcome to the Human Stories series by TMS, where we get to know Hong Kong through its many different faces. This weekend, we’re featuring Becky Lam, a hospitality owner/operator and investor behind some of Hong Kong's favorite F&B venues.
You know that one saying? The one of how, if the man is the head, the woman is the neck that turns the head wherever it pleases? That would be the exact personification of Becky Lam, an F&B investor behind famous Hong Kong staples like Quinary, Peel Street's Shady Acres and Honky Tonks – to list only a few.
As soft-spoken as she is, it takes just moments of conversation with Lam to discern her eloquence and commanding presence. Her trajectory through the gastronomic landscape is marked by her no-nonsense attitude and rebellious nature. She navigates the volatile industry with a sharp business sense and an openness to learn and adapt. A passionate defender of women in the F&B industry, Lam also works tirelessly to ensure that they have a voice among those who are more outspoken.
Lam is known in the group to work more behind the scenes, but she met up with the team at TMS to tell us about her journey into the F&B world, her personal missions and her love for the industry.
Nothing is as expected
Lam got into the F&B business purely by accident. Having grown up in Sydney, Australia, and in her words, “like many good immigrant daughters,” she studied commerce and business in school. She actually started her career path as a chartered accountant, working in an Australian investment bank for 10 years of her life, first in Sydney and then transferring to New York before finally moving to Hong Kong.
She was introduced to Antonio Lai, her future partner, for one of her first ventures in the hospitality scene. Throwing around the idea of a molecular gastronomy cocktail bar, the idea of Quinary was soon born. This venture then led to Origin, The Envoy and Room 309. But that was only the beginning.
It was only four years ago that she met Mike Watt and Ryan Nightingale, the minds behind Shady Acres. “As much as I say that hospitality was a career that I didn't choose, I’m very lucky because of the people that I met or because of, let’s call it happy accidents. I found the career of my life that I really want to do,” Lam admits. “And I think I’m going to do for the rest of my days.”
Lam also thinks there are different kinds of “bosses” that exist in the field. She stresses that it’s important for someone looking to get into F&B to figure out exactly what it is they want to be involved in. On the one hand, there’s the investor, who supplies the capital and finances to a venture. On the other hand, there’s the side of being more hands-on – being on the floor and understanding how the business works in a very personal manner. For Lam, it’s both.
Up to now, Lam has been most involved in the socials for the restaurants, where she’s found that her strengths lie in storytelling. “I'm mainly responsible, or had been, for social media and also kind of the voice for our venues. And now it's been in recent years branching out to more operational aspects as well,” she says. Without the background of going to a hospitality school or even the initial drive to end up in this industry, Lam tells us that getting hands-on and working on the floor allows you to truly experience what you're creating.
Lam explains that, as a business owner, working on the floor lets you get to know the community that is loyal to the business – from knowing their favorite drinks to the name of their pup. But it doesn't stop there. It allows the team to know that you know what they are experiencing, and it builds trust and collaboration.
When asked what she wished she could do if she had more spare time, Lam smiles and says, “I would like to do more things that are tangible and hands-on.” Combatting the flood of info and knowledge we experience every day, her opinion is that nothing is as tangible as creating something with your own hands. From a work perspective, she’d love to be able to fix the plumbing or learn the skills of an electrician or even a locksmith. “You can’t believe how much money we pay locksmiths because our doors are jammed or something’s broken,” she says.
But, from a personal perspective, if she had to go back and choose another career path, she says art would be the direction she would go. Drawing isn't the only artistic endeavor she’s interested in – there’s sculpting and painting, too. This isn't surprising, as Lam flourishes in her talent for writing, expressing herself freely and educating people on the hospitality industry on her blog.
The unsexy side
Lam reminisces about the beginning of setting up the line of restaurants, speaking endearingly about the ups and downs and struggles of opening an F&B venue. From being creative and resourceful to testing the waters to see what worked and what didn't, she admits that they tried to do and experience everything themselves, taking on jobs they weren't even qualified to do.
Now, the restaurant group is growing, covering both day and night venues. From a small team of 10 staff members, the group has grown to about 60 to 70 staff, including both full-time and part-time. They are realizing now that they couldn’t possibly do everything by themselves, which Lam calls the “unsexy things” of a restaurant, like systems, policies, handbooks and infrastructure, to name a few. “All of the stuff that wasn't so pressing when it was just one, we are now kind of learning, as we are going through this growing up phase, that we really need it, and we owe it to the team we’re building to have it,” she says. It’s through this that the group of restaurants can grow further.
“No one really talks about that!” she exclaims. “Everyone talks about how wonderful it is to make cocktails and to cook beautiful dishes and go out and schmooze with your friends.” But the “unsexy part” of opening restaurants and bars is really what takes up most of the staff’s time.
Answers to a classic question
As with many restaurateurs that grace TMS interviews, we had to ask Lam how she would describe the F&B scene in Hong Kong. She hesitates and says, “I thought about this one; it's really hard!”
Neighborly. “You wouldn’t really think it, but the Hong Kong F&B scene is actually very supportive of each other,” she says, giving the example of the highly anticipated week of Asia’s 50 Best Bars, where all members of the city’s F&B industry were out supporting each other. She does recognize that the term “cutthroat” is often used to describe the competition and wants to highlight the misconstruction.
Resourceful. “We found that the hard way during the pandemic,” she recalls. “It was a very tough time.” Lam describes the still-standing F&B outlets that made it through the outbreak doing things that they would have never dreamed of doing. They had to adapt to the ever-changing rules and regulations that would shift and alter the landscape of the F&B industry at the time.
Cutthroat. “But in the context, not really of competition among venues, which obviously also exists, but it’s cutthroat because fixed costs in Hong Kong are so high. Rent is so high,” she says. There’s simply not enough space for a business to have a period of low revenue and survive. She also mentions the high turnover in the industry, where it takes resources to train staff who stay, unfortunately, sometimes only for a short time. On top of that, Lam notes that clientele in Hong Kong are very discerning – they have high expectations of quality and novelty, and they want it at a good price.
A shoutout to the ladies
But there is one particular topic among many that Lam is particularly passionate about. Ladies in the workplace. Although a topic that keeps coming up in recent years, it’s for a good reason and all too real, especially in the hospitality industry. Because the F&B scene is still quite a heavily male-dominated industry, Lam notes that ladies often struggle to be seen or heard at the level that they’d like to be.
Although Lam highlights women, she notes that this topic extends beyond that. “It’s a constant work in progress to have a more diverse range of voices … more diverse cultures, different people from different backgrounds,” she says. For example, she mentions the Nepalese women who often work tirelessly in the back of house. “They're kind of like the invisible forces that work day in and day out producing the amazing food that we eat,” she says. “They're the unsung heroes.”
“For a lot of women, it’s not terribly innate at all times to be a show of force and to be the loudest and the most obvious voice in the room. For a lot of us, it’s a struggle even though we work really hard and there’s a lot to offer,” she says. She mentions that a lot of her work now is to highlight the voices of women in the industry – whether they’re on the floor, in the kitchen or behind the bar. Those who work just as hard, if not harder, but just aren’t the loudest.
Another point Lam highlights is the amount of exceptional women that are in the industry. Not only are they good at what they do, but a lot of venues become household names because of the sheer extent of work the staff apply to their craft.
“They're exceptional, more than your average Joe, in order to be where they are,” she says. And they work on all aspects of themselves, from their craft to their creativity of being excellent storytellers to being a driving force behind their team. They do all of that – often all while singing the praises of everyone else around them.