Taking pride in dishing out gastronomical delights

Yenn Wong, CEO and Founder, JIA Group 

Tell us about yourCareer, Journey & Passion?
JIA Group was founded with the opening of the Philippe Starck-designed JIA HONG KONG in 2004 followed by JIA SHANGHAI, Shanghai’s first design focused boutique hotel in 2007. In a very short time since their openings, JIA Hong Kong and JIA Shanghai each won multiple international awards. After successfully operating both hotels with international acclaim, I diversified my portfolio upon opening 208 DUECENTO OTTO, a restaurant and bar in the art and antiquing hub of Hong Kong’s Hollywood Road, in May 2010. It is a space that to this day remains one of Hong Kong’s most frequented restaurants – both for the casual neighbourhood vibes it exudes, and rustic Italian cuisine served. 208 turned eight this month, and our Issan Thai restaurant next door, Chachawan is now five. We’re humbling celebrating these milestones, but I think they are both proof that if you take the time to think of every element from the beginning, and execute with style and substance, you’re setting something up for longevity. As a company, we’re passionate about details and design, they combine to something much greater.

What has been your experience being an entrepreneur?
I believe in empowering your people to act. As an entrepreneur, it can be easy to fall into the trap of wanting to control every output. I’m an open communicator, and I’ve learned to encourage my team to think of the business as their own, take pride in what they’re charged with, and to make decisions they believe will further our brand visions. Having passionate and switched on people take control of certain aspects of your business, means you can then focus on growing it in other ways. That’s how you push forward.

From your first restaurant in 2004 in Hong Kong to today, how would describe your achievements?Awards and recognition aside, we focus on what guests’ want. We challenge ourselves to be creative and flexible in finding cuisines and spaces for them. Our portfolio is varied with something for different groups -whether it is a social destination for the art scene in Duddell’s, a place for the SoHo community to unwind at Aberdeen Street Social, or calling by 22 Ships for Michelin quality tapas at approachable prices. Maybe it’s a family meal at Meen& Rice on the weekend. I love that we have different options for a wide range of people – that you’ve created these places they love, and return to – that’s an achievement. Creating micro communities around ‘something’ that was once nothing, is a great achievement.

What the pull or trigger that made you get into this business?
The success of the hotels encouraged me to look at other places where consumers want a different experience. Hong Kong is competitive, but it also embraces the new and champions innovative concepts. You have both the Chinese focus on food and ingredients, and international exposure to global trends. This is why I’ve been able to continuously build new concepts in Hong Kong and why I’m so committed to the city: there is both a focus on quality and a hunger for innovation. Also, I’ve always been an absolute food enthusiast! It brings people together. I love that.

Which are the important factors that keep you going?
Our purpose is to create beautiful, refreshing spaces where people can come together. We believe that the time people spend together is precious – it is our role to elevate that time and ensure they spend it well.

Have you faced any obstacles in your initiatives? Do you think you have faced specific challenges because of being a woman?
We’ve been around for over ten years. We’ve gone from start up, to listed company, and have worked hard to become a sustainable business. We face obstacles each day, and work to solve them in real time, or take a step back, and formulate a plan of attack as a team. Regardless of gender, starting out is fearful. You do everything yourself and have to do your homework, and trust your intuition. Be brave.

Where do you usually find inspiration from?
Travel is a passion. I travel to experience different cultures which give me a lot of inspiration, and to see what others are doing. I also love to show my sons new things, and see their faces light up when they do. When I’m in another city, I’m constantly asking the locals where they go, and what they eat. That’s when you get to the good, down to earth, authentic spots! I’m also an avid reader and researcher. Not just current publications, but so too culinary classics. For example, the works of Elizabeth David, the British culinary writer, will forever be relevant and interesting.

What’s your proudest Achievement so far?
We are proud of what we have created to date. We’ve been creative, but creative doesn’t mean that we come up with food concepts that are obscure. Creative can mean looking back, freshening up something authentic and tweaking it for the present day. We go for food that at the core is honest – I believe this helps with the longevity of a business, by having food that people can relate to over a period of time. It’s nostalgic, you return to it.

How would you define success?
Success can be defined a variety of ways. But at a grassroots and community level – I love hearing from someone either directly or second hand, that they had a fantastic experience in one of our spaces. Knowing we created something that has brought enjoyment to another is rewarding. So too clicking on your restaurant’s location on Instagram and seeing people posting about the food and their time with loved ones. To me, that’s a form of success.

What Advice do you have for other aspiring Entrepreneurs, especially women?
There’s a lot of homework that entrepreneurs have to do, regardless of sex. Work on very detailed feasibility study, do your research, then do it again. Surround yourself with positive and diligent people. You’ve also only got one ‘gut feeling’, so go with it. Because of their commitments at both home and work, women (I believe) are born multitasks and with great time management – that’s a strength for any entrepreneur.