This article originally appeared in HongKongEcho 87 - F&B: Ripe with experience
Wine is a sacred institution for the French. So too is the bistro. Cristobal Huneeus, Co-Founder of natural wine cellar and bistro La Cabane Group, is doing both a little differently. We sat down for a chat about riding the organic wave and knowing when to admit defeat.
It’s 2pm and the lunchtime rush is filtering into a slow crawl back to work. La Cabane, however, is moving at its own rhythm. A striking mural is plastered on an outside wall like a bohemian call-to-arms. There’s a mix of high and low tables. An American couple leaves, a trio of French diners take their place. A light mix of dub and reggae music saunters in the background. There’s an earthy swell of textures, from bricks to wood, to rope. It’s a typical French bistro and yet it isn’t.
Cristobal arrives in a rush and talks with one of the bar staff – he orders the item of the day, then does a double-take. “Make it a croque monsieur,” he says. He joined Founder Karim Hadjadj who started a small wine shop in 2010, importing small batches of carefully curated natural wines, to launch La Cabane Group in 2012, an importer, distributor, retail and bistro operator. At the time, this was unheard of in Hong Kong. Two years later they opened La Cabane – the bistro – which is where we sit today, croque monsieur in all its glory.
But the food has never been the star of the show. The backbone of the business is natural wine – basically, wine without any chemicals used in the making process and with limited or no sulphur – sourced from around the globe. “Food works around the wine,” explains Cristobal. Five years down the track and the bistro is still here, which is not the case for many other operators.
“With the bistro I think we’ve been reasonably lucky in the sense that the journey has been quite smooth – not every day, but certainly if you look in the long run across five-plus years.”
The original wine cellar took a while to break even. A niche product and a less-than-visible location made for plenty of initial headaches. And while the duo somewhat accidently stumbled upon the ‘organic’ food boom – “we didn’t really anticipate the craziness around that,” he says – it’s still been a struggle to convince consumers of the benefits of drinking organic. “Consumers don’t necessarily have the logic that if they want to eat organic, they should also drink organic.”
The opening of the bistro provided them an avenue to start a B2B offering of natural wines to other bars and restaurants across the city. Likewise, it’s hasn’t been simple. You need the right kind of bar that’s ready “to take the risk with a funkier style of wine,” says Cristobal. In Hong Kong, this is still hard to find.
Small is beautiful too
With the bubbling enthusiasm and spending that characterised the F&B sector in 2015 – “the list of 40-50 openings each month was just crazy,” he says – the duo decided to open two new concepts. Unfortunately the tides were shifting rapidly. A “normalisation,” as Cristobal calls it, saw consumers spending much less than before. The downturn had arrived. Within 18 months, the new restaurants were closed.
“People in Hong Kong say that you have to be a big group to succeed. We’ve found it’s not necessarily true, because we tried to open other places and failed!” he says, “The concepts might not have been right at that time and perhaps it was too much for us to take on. Maybe we just weren’t good at getting the right people around us.”
Cristobal is able to look back on the experience and draw some key lessons. “Only the stubborn eventually fail, because if you think you’re the best at everything you’ll be in for a surprise at some point. For me, it’s very acceptable to realise you missed the mark and that you need to change strategy in order to make sure the rest of the business doesn’t fail. When it comes to what we do, being a niche offering, maybe small is beautiful after all.”
The crazy period of 2015 may be over, but there’s still plenty about the scene that puzzles Cristobal. Customer loyalty continues to fuel a novelty environment where people simply go once or twice to a restaurant and move on to something else. “Without generalising, people want novelty and they don’t take the hard work behind a concept seriously. Of course, there are people who do. But sometimes the education isn’t there.”
There are plenty who’ve been coming back to his bistro, he reminds us, including a strong portion of local customers who he believes help to make the operation sustainable. The key has been offering an experience that sticks to its guns and doesn’t waver with the ever-changing winds of hot concepts and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it trends. “We carry on doing what we do. That’s probably what our clientele appreciate; we haven’t had a change of heart,” he says. Of course, prices have shifted to match the market, he adds.
Interestingly, despite the slowdown, bottle shops seem to be popping up rapidly. “It shows that people maybe go out less, but they still drink,” says Cristobal. For La Cabane it means greater competition, but not necessarily tougher times. “There’s a wine cellar that opened the other week just down the road – good on them. We shouldn’t be afraid of competition; this is what Hong Kong is all about.”
LA CABANE GROUP LTD
See below for more content from the French Chamber.