‘You can feel like you are on holiday’

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Austrian Christian Rhomberg, 51, is the co-founder and director of the 97 Group, which he established in 1982. He now owns and manages 12 restaurants in Hong Kong and Shanghai. He is also executive director and founder of Kee, one of the city’s most exclusive dining clubs.

I came here with the foreign service as deputy Austrian trade commissioner. Hong Kong has been my home for 25 years, since I was 26 years old. I fell in love with the entrepreneurial spirit of the city and it inspired me to open my first restaurant, 1997, with some friends in 1982. I was young and I found the city very mysterious, sexy and exotic, especially coming from Austria, which was the complete opposite. The reason I wanted to leave Europe was because I wanted to go somewhere completely different, to an exciting and vibrant place that had a lot of growth potential.

When I was in my 20s, I met friends in nightclubs but I couldn’t find one I really liked, so I opened one myself. When I first arrived in Hong Kong choices for dining and drinking spots were confined to hotel outlets and a few pubs but not trendy western cafés or restaurants. My friends and I talked among ourselves and decided we should open one because that was what was obviously missing. My office was in the financial district yet, for an international city, at that time, entertainment was virtually non-existent.

In Hong Kong, to make a successful party you have to surprise people with a unique location. Five years ago, for the Kee anniversary, we rented a warehouse and an amphitheatre to host a party for 2,500 people. We had a circus and an Hermès fashion show amidst gardens, fountains and elaborately decorated stages. Ten years ago we found an old fashioned, sleepy amusement park, which doesn’t exist anymore, in Lai Chi Kok. There was a Chinese-themed garden with ponds, tea houses and a replica of the Great Wall. We didn’t tell our guests the location until the last minute and they came in costume. We flew in top impersonators of Michael Jackson, Madonna and Elton John from Las Vegas to perform.

Unfortunately Hong Kong has become very serious in business and people work too much. In my first 10 years of operation, we had a lot of business people coming in for leisurely lunches. These days, people rush back to the office. Business is very exciting, yet demanding, nowadays. I really wish the city would invest more into making it clean and green in terms of air and water quality. I don’t think it would require that much work – just a little more vision on the part of the government. Singapore and Sydney have shown us that there is a lot of potential [for cities] to be beautiful. Doing so will really make Hong Kong the “pearl of Asia” or the Monte Carlo of China. I think that would be really nice. In Monte Carlo you can still swim in the harbour between the yachts so why can’t we do that here?

I am from Innsbruck and grew up as a good skier and I am very much a sportsman. I still have family there and we have a beautiful home there. Normally I spend two to three months of the year in Europe and I am also working on something very different for that market. We have a beautiful property there with two lakes where we will build a transcultural health centre for preventive health and also a museum. Since I come from Austria, I like nature and, with a little effort, there are lots of walks in Hong Kong. Every morning I walk on the Blacks Link trail for an hour. On weekends I take my kids to [one of] the many country parks or we go out with friends on boats. You can really feel like you are on a tropical holiday in Hong Kong but you have to make a little bit of effort. Equally, the city is not a cultural desert; there is a lot of theatre, concerts and exhibitions where visual arts are expanding very quickly.

The quality of living in HK is expensive and then you also have to make an effort. Right now the market it very “brought through”, so there are not as many opportunities as in the early days. The fun in my business is to constantly reinvent ourselves and that makes it exciting. Kee is a sophisticated restaurant during the week and a trendy nightclub on weekends, which is a concept we chose on purpose. These days, there is every concept, every cuisine and entertainment you can imagine hosted in very interestingly designed venues.

You have to be up to date with global trends because the Hong Kong market is very demanding. In general, the western-oriented market has developed and become very sophisticated. In the beginning there were a handful of restaurants and bars similar to what we have in our group. These are operated both by foreigners and local Chinese who have travelled and wanted to do something they saw abroad.

Ideally, you should own your own property. When it comes to business it’s important to find the right location and, if you can’t own your own property, have a partnership with your landlord. Otherwise you will be exposed to exorbitant rent increases every three years.

Austria’s main business is tourism, yet there is very high taxation and bureaucracy that make it very difficult to make money there. Of course it’s also not as dense as Hong Kong. Innsbruck has 150,000 inhabitants and a third are students, so it is a good place for small cafés, bars and restaurants. And the Austrians love to eat and go out as much as the Chinese so this is not the problem. Having good staff is a problem in Europe. Europeans don’t want to be in the service profession so you have to work with a lot of foreigners but for a good restaurant to work you have to really work with local people.

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