Chris Dwyer, CNN
For Sandeep Arora, home is the ancient city of Jalandhar in India’s Punjab region. His wife, son and parents live there, but he hasn’t seen them since March 2020.
Amy Stott hasn’t seen her parents — or eaten at her beloved local fish and chip shop — in Manchester, England since June 2019.
Sabi Gurung, meanwhile, longs for the breathtaking mountains of Nepal, where her mom, dad and beloved dog all await her first visit in almost two years.
But thanks to a new initiative from Hong Kong’s Black Sheep Restaurants group, they’ll all soon be heading home — all expenses, more or less, paid.
In addition to money for flights and the battery of Covid tests needed, they’ll also receive extra weeks of unpaid leave to enable them to undergo Hong Kong’s notorious hotel quarantine, which the company is paying for, too. (According to the city’s famously strict entry restrictions, any returning residents spend either two or three weeks, at their own expense, quarantining in designated hotels.)
And while they’re staying there, Black Sheep Restaurants will even deliver them nightly meals from one of their 32 restaurants.
The only caveat? That staff complete one year of service upon their return.
‘It felt like the right thing to do’
Arora, Stott and Gurung are among the more than 250 staff to benefit from the move, which will allow employees at every level to head home from Hong Kong to countries as far-flung as Argentina, Nigeria, France, South Africa and Australia.
The program was dreamed up by Black Sheep Restaurant’s co-founders, Syed Asim Hussain and Christopher Mark. Hussain, is the first to admit that the move — one which will cost them at least US$650,000 — is slightly crazy.
“It was a silly idea we had after one too many bottles of wine,” he tells CNN. “The next day we spoke with our business people — they were totally against it. They’re there to help us not make stupid decisions.”
Despite this counsel, Hussain and Mark went ahead with it.
“Our business people are amazing and help us understand the liability and risk, but it’s going to get in the way of doing the right thing,” says Hussain. “This always is a business in which margins are razor thin, but especially now. I understand it was kind of brazen — but it felt like the right thing to do.”
Clearly the staff who are set to benefit, as they take advantage and head home from January onwards, couldn’t agree more.
Among these is Stott, who has spent the last 27 months in Hong Kong.
“It’s been difficult to be away from my family, especially when we have lost loved ones,” she says.
“Simply not being able to physically hug your mum and be there when they need support has been mentally challenging. Since Covid, I have had to become more conservative with spending, as you simply don’t know what is around the corner. The cost of quarantine plus flights is money I simply do not have to spare.”
She will head to Italy next summer for a friend’s wedding, before flying up to Manchester in northwest England to see her family and dog — and tuck in to some proper fish and chips.
“We have a little black schnauzer named Pippin and she loves going for long walks over the fields near my parents’ house,” says Stott. “There is nothing but green rolling hills for miles, I never thought I could miss that chilly wind that makes your ears cold. Then fish and chips! It’s a tradition for my first meal every time I visit home. Fish, chips, mushy peas.”
Her family’s reaction was understandably emotional.
“My family were blown away. My dad said that he knew already that I work with amazing people, but this is by far the most generous gesture he had come across. My mum just sobbed,” she says.
Arora is restaurant manager and sommelier at two Black Sheep restaurants across the street from one another, New Punjab Club — the world’s only Punjabi restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star — and Carbone, a sister restaurant to Carbone in New York.
“I haven’t been home since the pandemic started, which has been really difficult for me and my family,” he says. “My son is only eight so he is at an age where they seem to grow up so much, even in a month. To come back to Hong Kong from India means 21 days in a hotel. Before the pandemic I would go back every six months.”
As a restaurant industry veteran, the first thing he’s looking forward to eating is home-cooked food.
“I can’t wait to eat my mother’s cooking, especially her Baingan bharta with roti. It’s a simple Punjabi eggplant dish, but I have been missing it so much,” he says. “It is the first thing she makes for me whenever I go back.”
For many, it’s also the simple act of traveling somewhere — anywhere — outside of Hong Kong, for the first time in two years.
“The opportunity to go home means so much,” says Arora. “Aside from being with my family I am just really excited to travel again, I want to visit every corner of Punjab, especially the mountains. We’ll hike along the rivers, stay in hill resorts and just be in nature.”
There are also elements of working in hospitality which make being away from family all the harder, he says.
“With the festive season coming up there will be a lot of families in the restaurants celebrating. That can be a little bit hard when we are away from our loved ones but that is always how it is when you work in hospitality, even before the pandemic. For these times we make the guests our families.”
Eight-year Black Sheep Restaurants employee Gurung, who runs operations at the group’s Parisian-style steakhouse, La Vache, says being away from family during an epidemic has raised real concerns.
“I am from Pokhara in Nepal, a 20-minute flight from Kathmandu, a beautiful part of the world,” she says. “It’s where my mum, dad and my dog live.
“Obviously when you have relatives over a certain age who are so much more vulnerable to this virus, you do worry about them. It is just a constant concern in the back of your mind. Since the vaccinations, the situation in my hometown is much better, but it was quite bad for a while, not like here in Hong Kong. This opportunity to go home means so much to my parents and myself. It has made me really proud.”
Local food — and views to set the heart racing — are also on her agenda.
“I have been craving momos (Nepali dumplings) and samosas that we would eat when me and my friends were hanging out in college. I miss those days! Then making a coffee, sitting on my roof and looking at the view of the Himalayas.”
Clearly, as a successful group with more than 30 restaurants to their name — as well as ambitious future expansion plans in London, Paris and possibly elsewhere — Black Sheep Restaurants have the size and sufficiently deep pockets to offer employees this very special benefit.
Given that restaurant groups are often seen as the bad guys, Hussain expects that the move will be met with a healthy combination of optimism and cynicism.
“Groups are renowned for taking value away from people that work for the group, from guests, from suppliers,” he says. “So it’s very important for us to continue to be the type of group that gives value — or leaves something on the table for other parties.”
As for any staff who may try and take — let’s say — advantage of the program?
“My instructions to our leadership team is to not strictly police this. Let’s get people home. It would be awful if involves checking documentation. We don’t want to be draconian about implementation, because then it loses its weight and value. If someone wants to go to the beach, they must need it!”
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Top image: Carbone, one of the Black Sheep restaurant group’s 32 Hong Kong eateries. Credit: Black Sheep Restaurants