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“Lack of human resources remains the biggest problem for the development of the F&B industry”

Norman Tam

Macau is presenting increasingly more opportunities for people to pursue the dream of running their own business. But the dearth of human resources and relentless rental hikes continue to be the elephant in the room. Hindering, in particular, the operation of many local small and medium-sized enterprises, says local F&B veteran Norman Tam. The guiding light of the popular Hac Sa Park Restaurant is heavily into school catering as a way of expanding and diversifying his operations. Revealing to Business Daily that he’s as passionate about R&B as he is about F&B
How did you start the Hac Sa Park Restaurant in the first place?
I’ve been engaged in the F&B (Food and Beverage) business since the 70s, having worked at Hotel Lisboa for 15 years. At the beginning of the 90s, I started the Hac Sa Park Restaurant, so it has a history of more than 20 years now.
I was employed by Hotel Lisboa as a restaurant manager but you know that as a young man I always wanted to have my own business.
It was a big challenge. But it’s something completely different to working for someone else. [As an employee]You start from junior staff and progress to senior staff and get promoted to manager, but there’s always a limit. It’s a natural progression to start your own business if you want to take a step forward.
It delivers a huge sense of satisfaction and accomplishment; if you’re successful, of course!
Back in those days, there was basically nothing in Coloane. It was very deserted and remote, far from everywhere and few people visited. In order to develop the tourism here in Coloane, the government initiated a programme to revitalise the area. Fortunately, our company won the bid for this restaurant and we’ve been running it ever since.
The restaurant and pub are part of the recreational complex area of Hac Sa, which consists of a park, swimming pool, tennis court and football field. It’s owned by the government. We have entered into a contract with the government that has no end, unless we make a mistake.
We have to pay rent to the government to use this space. But we are in charge of the operation; no matter gain or loss, it’s down to the company. In general, it’s doing ok lah.
What was it like opening a restaurant in Coloane in the early 90s?
It was such a big challenge. The transportation was very inconvenient. The flow of people was very low. There was only this beach but no other infrastructure at all.
This recreational area was first built for locals and tourists to relax and chill during weekends and they could dine in the restaurant as well. This restaurant used to only offer BBQs for local groups, associations and students. It all started here.
In the very beginning, this used to be outdoors and it only opened during the summer time. When the weather got cold, we couldn’t even run the business because it was too cold. Later, we applied to the government to build a restaurant with indoor areas. Only afterwards, could we open the whole year round instead of only six months a year.
How has the business been throughout the years?
It’s usual for a business to have some ups and downs. With the development of society and the improvement of the infrastructure – especially easier access to Coloane due to better traffic and public transportation – the business started to get better and better.
But we’ve been through some extremely hard times, such as during the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak and the period before the Portuguese Government returned the sovereignty of Macau to China [at a time] when the social environment was very complicated. We had a hard time maintaining the operation back then.
The spring of our business really came when the Macau Government liberalised the gaming industry. There were batches and batches of tourists flocking into Macau, adding to the increasing number of tourists from Mainland China travelling through the Individual Visa Scheme. And the livelihood of Macau locals has also seen a significant improvement, so that they were more willing to travel a bit further for a change of scenery and relax during days off and come here. In the beginning, the locals always complained “Wow, no way! We can’t dine at your restaurant! It’s too far!” But, you know, now they have a different mentality and it helps our business get better and better.
What do you think is the biggest change before and after the handover as you have witnessed the changes with your very own eyes?
Security is much better. And since the opening up of the gaming market, there are businessmen from all around the world coming to Macau looking for opportunities. There’s a tremendous improvement in terms of the chances for every industry and sector to grow compared to the old days.
But speaking of transportation, traffic jams are one of Macau’s biggest problems. A lot of people make a reservation and they have difficulty reaching here on time because it takes them forever to go through Macau city centre and then they can’t find a parking space before reaching here and some have a hard time taking a bus. It affects our business as well.
Why did you brand it as a Portuguese food restaurant?
In the very beginning, we offered only BBQs. But Macau belonged to Portugal and our cooks have mastered the skills of Portuguese cuisine. Also, after all, Portuguese cuisine is better for Western customers and tourists. And the menu lures tourists. Some tourists come to Macau in search of Portuguese food. It’s a major attraction for them.
Nowadays, 50 per cent of the business comes from local customers; 50 per cent comes from tourists, more or less.
Out of curiosity, as a restaurant boss, do you look at restaurant review websites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp?
Yes, I look at those. Sometimes, when they reflect some problems of some certain dishes, I will discuss this with my kitchen staff.
Good ideas we accept; bad ideas we forget.
You’re not really suffering from rent problems like other restaurants, are you? Since it’s a government-owned space…
We do! The rent has been increasing every year according to the contract. But, of course, if the general economy is in a bad condition, we can negotiate with the government, such as in the time of SARS.
Your company is also engaged in school catering services…
Yes, besides this restaurant and pub, our company is engaged in school catering. The business has been growing very well so far. Currently, we undertake the catering for 15 schools, providing thousands of students and staff with breakfasts and lunches, with some other partnerships under negotiation. The operation is of a relatively large scale. The kitchens are mostly located in Macau, with some provided by the schools, and some provided by the government.
This is one direction we can expand the company’s portfolio.
Also, as we discussed before, the business of this restaurant used to be tough during the old days as the location is far from the city centre. In order to maintain the operation of the company, we had to look for a way out, that’s why we started school catering. We’re very lucky that so far it’s been doing great.
What do you consider the biggest challenge?
The lack of human resources is the biggest problem.
The government has been helpful in granting us quotas to hire non-resident workers. We have some at managerial level, some official staff, mainly kitchen staff and service staff. But recruitment remains a huge headache for the F&B business.
What’s your daily life routine nowadays?
My routine nowadays is seven days a week. From Monday to Friday, I have to come to the restaurant. Besides, I need to look after the school catering business. The operation is crucial since it involves more than a dozen schools and food consumed by thousands of people. After that finishes in the afternoon, I come to the restaurant.
In addition, I have my own band – Test Band – which performs at various events and functions in Macau. Our band has a long history and has participated in many events in the promotion of Macau’s tourism and celebrations of many occasions, such as the National Day holidays, sometimes by invitation of the Macau Government. Here’s a photo of us with (Hong Kong Cantopop singer) Paula Tsui Siu-fung, and here’s another one of us with (former MSAR Chief Executive) Edmund Ho, and another one with the incumbent Chief Executive (Fernando Chui Sai On).
I’m the lead singer of the band. It’s my hobby and my favourite thing to do.
I’ve been managing our band and participating in performances all around for more than 20 years.
You have a stage for a live band in the restaurant. That’s convenient…
Here, we mainly have the restaurant business and the band normally performs outside. But, of course, if someone hosts an event here and wants some entertainment, we can provide the service. You can also bring your own band or entertainers. We have all the gear and instruments here – guitar, bass, drum set, and a mixer worth more then MOP150,000. For example, if you want to have a birthday party with buffet dinner, but you have your own entertainers, all are welcome to come and have fun here.
Many local brand restaurants open branches in casinos in collaboration with gaming operators? Have you ever considered that?
Yes. The most important thing about expanding the business by opening a branch is location. If we can find some ideal location, I don’t see why not. But you know that rent is a big problem in Macau nowadays. It’s so expensive. A restaurant that has customers and income but can’t cover the rental cost or labour cost can’t survive.
Also, as we mentioned, another main problem lies in human resources. We’re already running with a tight group of staff. I have to take some chores into my own hands to help out. It’s really hard to hire good staff. We depend a lot upon imported labour but the standards are not stable all the time.
If we have enough people, expanding the business wouldn’t be a big problem as we have the experience.
Some say the general economic outlook is gloomy. Do you feel that?
Of course, we feel the direct impact. For example, with gaming revenues dropping our business has dropped slightly as well. The gamblers come less. The consumption is less. But as our main target clients are not exactly high-rollers but mainly locals and tourists, the impact on our business is not that obvious.
Some have voiced fears that if the Light Railway Transit (LRT) systems link Coloane or if this area is more developed, it will take away the last piece of serenity of Macau. What’s your take on that?
The LRT project is part of the development of Macau society. It would solve some of Macau people’s transportation problems and provide more convenience for tourists. Of course, Coloane is not what it used to be. It was so quiet. But I wouldn’t say it would be damaged. As a restaurant owner, the more customers, the better. I believe there will still be a nice environment here – and it’s very family friendly.
Do you identify yourself as a Macau person? When you have tourists in the restaurant, what would you tell them about your city?
I’m proud to be a Macau citizen. Macau is a very friendly place, compared to other cities such as Hong Kong; too many argument going on there! Macau is a nice place. As I was born and raised here, I can say that Macau is a very small place but through the years it has become what it is now, it’s quite something. When we were kids, Macau was a tiny little place with little opportunity for people to run a business or pursue one’s dream. In the 60s and 70s a lot of people went to Hong Kong or somewhere else to seek their future. They wouldn’t stay in Macau. But now with the development of Macau, that’s all changed. A lot of them came back. Also, back then only Macau people went to Hong Kong in search of work. Now, a lot of Hong Kongers come to Macau to work.
I hope the development of Macau continues so that the next generation will have more and more opportunities in the city.
You’ve been working in F&B for more than 40 years. Have you ever considered looking for a successor?
Yes, that’s the plan. I was born in 1951. I opened the restaurant when I was 38. It’s about time for me to look for a successor. Of course, I want to still work here as long as possible, in two areas – music and F&B.
You said that it gives one a huge sense of satisfaction when one’s own business is successful. Do you consider it’s successful now?
I think it’s successful in general . . . but there’s always room to improve!