Hong Kong Covid-19: A restaurant group is paying $650k to fly staff home

Hong Kong (CNN) – For Sandeep Arora, the home is the ancient city of Jalandhar in the Indian region of Punjab. His wife, son and parents live there, but he has not seen them since March 2020.

Amy Stott hasn’t seen her parents – or eaten at her beloved fish and chips store – in Manchester, England since June 2019.

Meanwhile, Sabi Gurung longs for the picturesque mountains of Nepal, where her mum, dad, and adorable dog have been waiting for their first visit in nearly two years.

But thanks to a new initiative from Hong Kong’s Black Chip group of restaurants, they’ll all be coming home soon – all expenses, more or less, paid.
In addition to funds for flights and battery needed for Covid tests, they will also receive additional weeks of unpaid leave to enable them to undergo the notorious hotel quarantine in Hong Kong, which the company is also paying. (According to the city’s notoriously strict entry restrictions, any returning resident would spend two or three weeks, at their own expense, quarantined in certain hotels.)

And while they’re there, Black Sheep restaurants serve them nighttime meals from one of their 32 restaurants.

The only warning? That employees complete one year of service upon their return.

‘I felt it was the right thing to do’

Arora, Stott and Gurung are among more than 250 employees to take advantage of the move, which will allow employees at every level to return home from Hong Kong to countries as far afield as Argentina, Nigeria, France, South Africa and Australia.

The program was designed by the founders of Black Sheep Restaurant, Syed Asim Hussain and Christopher Mark. Hussein, is the first to admit that the move – which will cost them at least $650,000 – is a little crazy.

“It was a silly idea we had after eating too many bottles of wine,” he told CNN. “The next day we spoke with our business people – they were totally against it. They are there to help us not make stupid decisions.”

Despite this advice, Hussein and Mark continued to do so.

“Our entrepreneurs are amazing and help us understand the responsibility and the risks, but they will get in the way of doing the right thing,” Hussain says. “This has always been a business where profit margins are very slim, but especially now. I understand it was kind of rude – but it seemed like the right thing to do.”

The employees who are preparing to benefit, because they are benefiting and going home from January onwards, could not agree more.

Amy Stott, second from left, is looking forward to coming home to see her family pictured.

Courtesy of Amt Stott / Black Sheep Restaurants

Among them is Stott, who has spent the last 27 months in Hong Kong.

“It was hard to be away from my family, especially when we lost loved ones,” she says.

“Simply put, not being able to hug your mom physically and be there when they need support has been a mental challenge. Since Covid, I’ve had to become more conservative in spending, because you simply don’t know what’s around the corner. The cost of quarantine plus flights It’s money I shouldn’t be saving.”

She’s heading to Italy next summer for a friend’s wedding, before traveling to Manchester in northwest England to see her family and her dog – and eat some delicious fish and chips.

“We have a little black schnauzer called a Pippen and she loves to take long walks over the fields near my parents house,” says Stott. “There’s nothing but green hills rolling for miles, I never thought I could miss those cold winds that make your ears chill. Then fish and chips! It’s a tradition for a first meal every time I visit home. Fish, chips, and mushy peas.”

Her family’s reaction was understandably emotional.

“My family was blown away,” she says. “My dad said he already knows I work with amazing people, but this is the most generous gesture he’s ever had. My mom just cried.”

Sandeep Arora has not seen his wife and son since before the pandemic.

Sandeep Arora has not seen his wife and son since before the pandemic.

Courtesy of Sandeep Arora / Black Ship Restaurants

Arora is a restaurant manager and sommelier at two Black Sheep restaurants across the street, New Punjab Club – the world’s only Michelin-starred Punjab restaurant – and Carbone, Carbone’s sister restaurant in New York.

“I haven’t been home since the pandemic started, which is really hard for me and my family,” he says. “My son is only eight so he’s at an age where he seems to be getting a lot older, even in a month. Coming back to Hong Kong from India means 21 days in a hotel. Before the pandemic I’d come back every six days. Months.”

As an expert in the restaurant industry, the first thing he looks to eat is home cooked food.

“I can’t wait to eat my mother’s food, especially the bijng bharta with roti. It’s a simple Punjabi eggplant, but I’ve been missing it so much,” he says. “It’s the first thing you do for me whenever I come back.”

For many, it is also the simple act of traveling somewhere – anywhere – outside of Hong Kong, for the first time in two years.

“The chance to come home means a lot,” Arora says. “Apart from being with my family, I am really excited to travel again, I want to visit every corner of Punjab, especially the mountains. We will walk along rivers, stay in hill resorts and be in nature.”

There are also elements to working in hospitality that make it difficult to be away from family, he adds.

“With the holiday season approaching, there will be a lot of families in restaurants celebrating. It can be a little difficult when we are away from our loved ones but that is always the case when you work in hospitality, even before a pandemic. In these times, we make guests our families.”

Sabi Gurung says she can't wait to get home in Nepal and see her family - and enjoy some momos while she's there.

Sabi Gurung says she can’t wait to get home in Nepal and see her family – and enjoy some momos while she’s there.

Courtesy of Sabi Gurung / Black Sheep . Restaurants

Gurung, a Black Sheep employee who works at La Fache, a Parisian-style restaurant, says being away from family during the pandemic has raised real concerns.

“I am from Pokhara in Nepal, a 20-minute flight from Kathmandu, which is a beautiful part of the world,” she says. “It’s where my mum, dad, and dog live.

“Obviously when you have relatives over a certain age who are more susceptible to this virus, you worry about them. It’s just a constant worry in the back of your mind. Since vaccinations, the situation in my hometown has gotten a lot better, but it’s been really bad for a while. Not like here in Hong Kong. This chance to come home means a lot to me and my parents. It makes me really proud.”

Local food – and worrisome views – are also on her agenda.

“I was craving the momo (Nepalese dumplings) and samosas we had when my friends and I were hanging out in college. I miss those days! Then I get coffee, sit on my roof and look at the Himalayas.”

Obviously, as a successful group of more than 30 restaurants to its name – as well as ambitious future expansion plans in London, Paris and possibly elsewhere – Black Sheep restaurants have the size and pockets deep enough to provide employees with this very special advantage.

Gurung runs operations at La Vache Restaurant in Hong Kong.

Gurung runs operations at La Vache Restaurant in Hong Kong.

Noah Fix / Black Sheep Restaurants

Given that restaurant groups are often seen as the bad guys, Hussain expects the move to be met with a healthy mix of optimism and sarcasm.

“Collections are notorious for taking value away from the people who work in the collection, from the guests, and from the suppliers,” he says. “So it’s very important for us to continue to be the kind of person who gives value – or leaves something on the table for other parties.”

As for which employee might try to benefit – let’s say – from the program?

“My instructions to our leadership team is not to strictly monitor this. Let’s get people home. It would be awful if it involved document checking. We don’t want to be strict about implementation, because then it loses weight and value. If they want to go to the beach, they should need to.” mechanism! “

Top photo: Carbone, one of the 32 Hong Kong restaurants of the Black Ship restaurant group. Credit: Black Sheep Restaurants


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