Serious business

Community, then company: Syed Asim Hussain of Black Sheep Group

Syed Asim Hussain, co-founder of Hong Kong’s Black Sheep Restaurants, on growing a startup and the importance of company culture

Black Sheep launched its first restaurant in 2012. What was the vision early on?

After working on Wall Street, I came back to Hong Kong and wanted to open restaurants. I met [co-founder] Christopher Mark and we had a lot of similar ideas and philosophies of concepts and cuisines we wanted to express.

What are diners looking for today?

Cookie cutter concepts are perhaps obsolete now. We don’t do Italian: we’ll do coastal Italian or New York Italian or a Florentine wine bar. People have travelled now and they understand this distinction. The stories we’re trying to tell are very specific.

You’ve grown fast and now have 17 restaurants. What’s that been like?

From the outside it may seem quick, but for us it’s been a careful, measured journey. It’s been literal and metaphorical blood, sweat and tears. We were ambitious from the get-go but we were in the trenches. When we opened our first restaurant, Chris was in the kitchen, I was running the floor, and until year three I was scheduled to work at one of the restaurants. I love this startup mentality. Now that we’ve grown, we can’t lose sight of the things that made us great as a young company and the culture we’ve built.

How do you view company culture?

I think we’ve been successful because we’ve created a sense of community around our work. Black Sheep is a community first and a company second, and I think that’s how all great companies are. We also really care about the development of our people. For example, a young back waiter who started with us at Motorino is now running both of the restaurant’s locations.

How will technology affect what you do?

I think people come to restaurants to get away from technology. In 10 years, restaurants might be one of the only non-digital places. At the back end, we are embracing technology solutions, like for inventory, but that’s boring management stuff. I want to shield guests from this.

What’s coming up next?

Black Sheep is a Hong Kong restaurant group, but maybe both these things will change.  We’re working on our first international opening and I hope we will open our first hotel in the next few years.

Marco Polo Club Diamond Members enjoy priority reservation and wait list for all Black Sheep Restaurants. See cathaypacific.com for more details

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