DINING CONCEPTS has redefined lifestyle in a discerning city spoilt for choice thanks to the will and vision of its founder – people-centric SANDEEP SEKHRI. In this free-wheeling, no-holds-barred interview the iconic restaurateur shares the spirit, ideology and passion that are breaking moulds, setting standards and benchmarking lifestyle in Hong Kong.

When Rabindranath Tagore wrote Where the Mind is Without Fear, he could hardly have known that his globally famous poem would resonate so strongly in the life of another son of the soil, albeit many miles away and in a different time.

The famous poem speaks of humble courage and a belief in global brotherhood, the very concepts that spawned the courageous journey of Sandeep Sekhri.

His journey began with a dream – a courageous first step to proudly unwrap and humbly showcase the authenticity of true Indian cuisine and he affectionately called it – Bombay Dreams.

When Bombay Dreams opened its doors on Dec 26, 2002 for the first time, Hong Kong tasted home-cooked-style Indian fare that brought us the tastes and flavours, not just of Indian food, but also of Indian hospitality. People from all nations flocked to experience this culinary jewel of a billion flavours and they loved it! Tagore would have been proud.

Top) ALTO in Causeway Bay. Bottom) BIZOU in Pacific Place and their signature Southern Fried Chicken, with Soft Poached Egg, Spring Peas, Garlic Foam.

Plates Pave Path of Progress

“We began with a very simple set of beliefs,” says Sekhri, “to put value before price, passion before profit, the customer first and last.” Is this what took Dining Concepts to Hong Kong’s GEM listing? “Our customers did that. Our mission remains simple, from day one we believed – as we say in India – our guest is our God. If there is a magic formula, then this must be it.”

Sekhri is a vegetarian. He isn’t religious. Spirituality forms the cornerstone of his understanding of ‘service’. Perhaps Dining Concepts is that very essence that flows from him, through all his people and finally finds its way to the heart of his customers.

“Dining Concepts is not an offering of one personality but that of a motivated, positive-minded team that thrives on constant improvisation. We give as we would like to receive. We inspire as we would like to be motivated. We share because only in sharing is there abundance.”

Sekhri’s love for people has forged relations across the board. From (mostly) cooperative landlords and suppliers, to contractors, celebrity chefs and loyal staff, he strikes a win-win chord resulting in Dining Concepts being the fastest growing hospitality group in Hong Kong.

But, the desire for growth pales in comparison with his desire for accomplishing the extra-ordinary. We are not just about food and drink. We are about astoundingly entertaining experiences. We create lasting memories. We are, shared happiness.”

Sandeep Sekhri (R), CEO and Sandip Gupta, Executive Director of Dining Concepts. “We have nothing more to prove to each other and we would not be where we are were it not for Sandip,” says Sekhri.

Sincerity of Purpose

Sekhri’s grounding in family-based values explains his hands-on approach to business. “In the 27 years that I’ve been in Hong Kong, I’ve never bought a Mark 6 ticket. I believe in enjoying only what I have earned. Working to survive, to overcome challenges and to thrive makes you a better professional. After all, from a business perspective, it is about the survival of the fittest.”

Sekhri is no stranger to challenge and uncertainty, which is handy because Hong Kong has enjoyed a retail high from 2004 to 2014. Today, the slump is causing increasing pain to an industry already burdened by rising wages (up some 30% since 2014) and rapidly climbing rents. A talent crunch is biting too as Internet-inspired youth have begun showing slim leanings toward industries demanding hard physical and mental labour.

“This is where our sincerity of purpose bears fruit,” he says. “The whole company works toward one goal – to blend creativity, innovation, passion and purpose with our famous Hong Kong Chinese ‘will-do’ attitude. Challenges bode well for us because our market identifies with brands that improve because of challenges. Our customers are aware of the hurdles we face and appreciate that we are still consistent in quality of service and product. I insist that we stay consistent because we are known for providing such value for money that often our customers don’t remember how much their bill came to. I’ve often told my staff that when a customer doesn’t remember how much he paid, we have done our job.”

“We give as we would like to receive. We inspire as we would like to be motivated. We share because only in sharing is there abundance.” – Sandeep Sekhri, Founder & CEO of Dining Concepts Ltd.

The three famous bars of Dining Concepts: Lilya (top), Iron Fairies (bottom left), Ophelia (bottom right).

How High is Up?

“We are limited only by our own imagination,” Sekhri says. In spite of challenges, the Group is planning to open a few more restaurants and bars in 2018. Dining Concepts plans to open a new Le Pain Quotidien on The Peak, 2 bars in the Central Police Station one of which will be called Dragonfly and the other, perhaps what will be Asia’s best bar on the IFC rooftop called Dear Lilly. Strong design and concept will be the hallmark of these new thematic experiences,” Sekhri says.

“Exceeding customer expectations have become our mainstay and along with my very trustworthy executive director Sandip Gupta, we have converted our satisfied customers into our best advertisers.”

Gupta and Sekhri have been together for the past 22 years and since Dining Concepts began Gupta has overseen every aspect of its operations with an enviable agility. Visiting all of the Groups 28 restaurants, café’s and bars (at the time of writing), every day, he stands on call 24/7 to assist his managers and nearly 1000 employees with ideas, resources, planning, costing, etc. His role is ‘execution to perfection’ – and fulfills it with remarkable passion and humble grace. He brings a rich set of skills, values and concepts alongside a wealth of experience to compliment Sekhri’s uphill trek to the future.

“We have nothing more to prove to each other and we would not be where we are were it not for Sandip,” says Sekhri in a tone that says more than the words themselves ever will.

Top) Button shaped pasta f illed with lime emulsion, topped with roasted octopus and fish sauce from SPIGA.
Bottom) Le Pain Quotidien’s Beetroot Hummus Tartines.

An Authentic Product

“We are serving a discerning market that is hungry for change, new concepts, dynamic experiences,” says Gupta. To exceed the market’s expectations vis-à-vis the challenges Sekhri spoke of, requires that I live for Dining Concepts. I enjoy the thrill of the balancing act and in moments of doubt, I reach for strength from above. Running Hong Kong’s fastest growing group of themed restaurants and bars involves time, pressure, relentless effort and extraordinary people skills but given the 24 hours, it is often exhausting to achieve all that’s needed to be accomplished but I accept that I can only do what is humanly possible. I leave a higher power to fill in the blanks.”

Gupta says: “People and product broadly divide my time, as executive director. I enjoy finding committed professionals devoted to service and training them to deliver on promises. On the product side, working with the managers and staff to create the ‘guest experience’ and deliver an authentic product on the table is my task. I achieve more than I would because of the trust that Sandeep Sekhri has in my tastes, judgment, business acumen, people skills and my understanding of consumerism,” Gupta explains.

“Keeping one eye on creating more value for the customer and the other on the balance sheet is easier said than done but thanks to my trustworthy team, we are able to sail through rough and fair weather alike.”

“I learn a lot from my colleagues who all come from various parts of the world, from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. They enrich our company with a unity in diversity. We celebrate our differences and cherish our common goal.”

“Dining Concepts is not Sandeep Sekhri and Sandip Gupta. Since we opened our Bombay Dreams doors we’ve grown as an expanding family, each cherished member contributing talent, time, energy, passion, attitude, creativity and innovation, while remembering our mission – to serve with humility and excel in quality. Why? Because there is no higher calling than serving your fellow man,” concludes Gupta.

For additional information, please visit www.diningconcepts.com

Hong Kong’s Business Leaders share market and interest intelligence in the pages of HKMVC 2018