Hong Kong – The first location of Pici, a neighbourhood pasta bar opened its doors on St. Francis Yard in Wan Chai five years ago. It serves hand-rolled pasta that is created daily using straightforward Italian recipes, yet full of flavour and character.
Today, The Pirata Group’s Pici brand now has 8 outlets spread over Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, the New Territories, and Shanghai, along with a few delivery kitchens. And last month, the 9th Pici outlet was launched in Causeway Bay.
Longevity and sustainability in Hong Kong’s competitive culinary scene is no easy feat. Set the Tables sits down with Justin Tang, Director of Operations to learn about his humble origins, what it takes to lead a capable team of 170 people and continuously grow the Pici brand.
Justin is a vivacious Hongkongee who injects positive vibes and happiness to everyone he meets. Justin chose the hospitality profession over the stage after studying Screen Acting for Film. He spent years with a global restaurant chain working his way up in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
After having a memorable dining experience at Pirata as a guest, Justin decided to join the Pirata Group. He started out as a training manager before rising to the position of Multi-Site General Manager for all Pici Pasta Bar locations on the Kowloon side. Justin can be seen bouncing around with a wide smile, energising the crew to work toward legendary hospitality.
Table of Contents
- How did you get your start?
- How has a failure set you up for later success?
- For those that haven’t visited, tell us a bit more about Pici?
- What are your personal favourite dishes? And why?
- Congratulations on your 9th opening of Pici! What is the secret sauce in flourishing an F&B business?
- Tell us more, what is your definition of legendary hospitality?
- What do you put in place for your team to create an experience with remarkable service?
- What are the (internal) systems or methods in place to evaluate your own staff’s performance and service level?
- How do you manage your team, and what is your leadership style?
- How do you keep your team inspired and motivated to love what they do?
- What learnings and advice can you share with younger peers?
- Lastly, what’s next for Pici?
Number of staffs: 170
Average sq ft of Pici outlets: Around 1,300 sq. ft with average 60-70 seating capacity
Largest Pici outlet: Pici Shatin is the largest for now, with 140 seating capacity
Number of customers served per week: (approx) Over 4,000 guests daily, 28,000 guests weekly
Getting to know Justin
How did you get your start?
It all started as the “Plan B of my life”
Back when I was 17, I was pursuing my dream in film academy to be a screen actor. To ease out the financial burden for my parents, I have ended up working as a casual worker in a fast food pizzeria.
Throughout the time, not only skills but I have developed my passion over hospitality. Soon as I have graduated from the academy, I have swapped my stage over to the hospitality industry.
My road map really started to be coming in shape with Jamie’s Italian’s franchise. During the opening of 2 units in Hong Kong and 1 unit in Taipei, I had been working my way up. Getting to see how this brand works in different levels and perspectives, I have my goals determined .
First step was leaving Jamie’s Italian to join Pirata Group as the learning and development manager. Participated in the opening of numerous new concepts and locations, while safeguarding the onboarding and training standards of the group.
During the first pandemic of COVID, I have chosen to be back in operations as a general manager for one of the flagship Pici. Leading the fleet sailing through the storm, I have then advanced and become the Director of Operations of Pici.
How has a failure set you up for later success?
I am fortunate to not have a big failure but lots of small little lessons learnt. My favourite story happened in my early career. During a free-flow brunch (a very common thing in Hong Kong), a few guests had a bit too many drinks. I was known for a “yes man” that I didn’t refuse topping up drinks for them. Ended up these guests made a scene and of course a mess too. That day I might have made a table happy, but surely the guests around – didn’t.
I guess my major takeaways on this were taking care of guests while looking into a bigger picture. My hospitality view on guests’ experience has escaped from tunnelled vision. What I always look at is a marco and big picture since then.
Learning about Pici
For those that haven’t visited, tell us a bit more about Pici?
For straightforward food that is perfectly simple, we serve the best quality ingredients and dishes that are full of flavour and character.
Real, down to earth Italian pasta as it should be. Guests can drop into any Pici anytime for a plate of pasta, glass of Italian wine and have a good time around friendly service and a causal upbeat vibe.
What are your personal favourite dishes? And why?
If I have to pick, there are two dishes that always make my day and night. First, Orecchiette with Italian sausage and “Nduja – Hand shaped pasta made piece by piece, with a rich and flavourful sauce , a kick of Calabrian spicy “Nduja. Second, Tiramisu. Nothing can beat a hearty rustic tiramisu. Spoons of velvety deliciousness plus coffee soaked biscuits are just the perfect “pick-me-ups”
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Congratulations on your 9th opening of Pici! What is the secret sauce in flourishing an F&B business?
Thank you. It is indeed a blessing from the city and thanks to the love from our fellow Hongkongers and team’s effort. I think these are something we never compromise on.
- Good Food. We constantly challenge ourselves if we can do better. Any single dish that goes onto the menu must go through numerous trials and tastings internally. To me , the definition of good food is as simple as “yay” or “nay”. You have that one bite and you made that sound of “Mmmmm!” － the sound of satisfaction, that’s a “yay!” Also, we select our main ingredients from Italy and authentic recipes that are created by our Italian chefs.
- Good Service. All about how we make our guests feel. As much as we can accommodate – we do. All team members are inspired to treat guests like in their own houses and it is a big part of Pirata Group’s culture that we look after our people first, so that they can look after our guests better. As we are a non-reservation restaurant. The experience of queuing comes into a big part of how we showcase hospitality, such as to offer refreshment when the queue is too long.
- Value for money. With the two elements above, this final but crucial bit will play a big part. We put tremendous effort on supplier pricing and menu engineering. Making sure we can give value to guests, and as much as to exceed what they pay for. A perfect example will be our tagliolini truffle, selling at 180 HKD (around 23 USD). And we have a tasting menu at an approachable price (290 HKD pp, around 37 USD pp)that allows guests to try many of their favourites, featuring 2 starters, 3 pastas, 2 desserts.
“Justin can be found infusing the team with energy to work towards legendary hospitality.”
Tell us more, what is your definition of legendary hospitality?
My initial inspiration triggered by a TED Talk by Mr.Bobby Stuckey – a Master Sommelier, which I would recommend everyone to watch here.
Service is what we do to someone, an action; Hospitality is how we make someone feel.
It is all about the guest experience, the journey from entering our door all the way to as our guests depart.
It can be something as small as making sure the temperature is comfortable or as big as buying someone a bunch of flowers for an occasion.
There is almost not a playbook for all, it is all about going extra miles to convert the experience into a memory in the life of someone.
What do you put in place for your team to create an experience with remarkable service?
We do have a very comprehensive manual illustrating all the steps of the service sequence. Every step includes why, how and what. Each steps when applicable, we give hints and example on how to go extra miles.
In the opening of a new Pici, we hold a week-long academy. One exercise we do with our team is to brainstorm ideas of hospitality to their own house’s guests, then convert these ideas into restaurant practices.
For new joiners, we offer induction for them to fully understand and recognize the importance of the company’s culture & mission – ‘Unconditional Hospitality’ as well as on-site training and buddy to seamlessly merge into the team.
At Pirata Group, we are strong believers of people-first culture, which means we look after our people first and guests after – that way our people can serve the guests better.
We are reaffirming our commitment to our people and culture through a range of benefits such as increased base salaries, and a guaranteed monthly revenue share with every team member, as well as to have open and honest conversations with the team.
What are the (internal) systems or methods in place to evaluate your own staff’s performance and service level?
There are few that we use.
Number one being Sevenrooms, one of the most used reservation and table management platforms in the industry now. It automatically sends surveys to our guests and helps us to evaluate.
Next is the “Practical Test”. Where managers go through a full experience and audit the sequence of service according to our manual.
The last one is mystery dinner service. We hire an external company to do random mystery visits and to evaluate according to our requirements. They often provide not only professional but very objective, biase-less feedback.
How do you manage your team, and what is your leadership style?
I would say my style is transformational plus coaching.
Transformational : Be Fast, Be light & Be focus. Leading the business to where it can be.
Coaching: I believe good leaders are there to aspire to inspire, actions will follow.
How do you keep your team inspired and motivated to love what they do?
A development pathway with clear objectives and achievable goals is always the ultimate driving force. As well as to make work fun and relevant to their interest, so every team member can enjoy while they work. It is a matter involving them to develop a recipe, or get them onboard with a marketing activity.
As mentioned above, we also offer guaranteed monthly revenue share with every team member, staff discount dining at all Pirata Group restaurants, salary review after 12-month service.
What learnings and advice can you share with younger peers?
- Have a plan, with a time frame. Nothing happens with deadlines, set up an achievable deadline, and work your time frame backwards.
- One thing at a time. Focus on one thing that matters the most, get it done and get over it. Then you move to your next stop.
- Be opened to criticism. Always start with listening, and we see what we can learn from.
Lastly, what’s next for Pici?
Thanks to the outstanding efforts of our team and unwavering support of our guests, we expanded for the first time to Kennedy Town, Kowloon Bay, Tseung Kwan O and we also opened our first international outpost in Shanghai in 2021.
As Hong Kong emerges from the fifth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are on track to open Pici Causeway Bay on July 15 and will open Pici Taikoo Place in Quarry Bay on October 1, marking the 10th Pici in total. In celebrating the opening of new Pici, our second year of Pici Pasta Run will also return in mid September.
We aim to expand internationally and be present in other countries. As a group, Pirata Group targets to have 100 restaurants (currently: 26) and a presence in 5 countries within the next 5 years.
We have not made up our mind yet on which market to enter at the moment as we think that entering a new market requires a comprehensive marketing research and strategic planning on aspects including the overall economy, both globally and locally, the domestic demand for products that we know we are good at as well as having the right partners including real estate, investors and suppliers.
We will look for markets with a mature F&B scene where the type of cuisine we know we can deliver better than anyone else, is part of our guest staple diet. Alignment of consumer demand and what we can deliver is essential for successful expansion.
However, we are definitely looking for markets in Asia and Middle Eastern markets and will explore different business formats including equity, joint ventures and franchises, taking into consideration the best value creation for our shareholders.
Promotion: Follow the telltale fragrance of Italy’s timeless delicacy to Pici Sha Tin and Pici Lai Chi Kok to enjoy an exclusive menu rich in truffley treats. Available until December 2022, Truffle Madness includes truffle-fied versions of six signature Pici dishes, served every day of the week for a rich and beautiful taste you’ll just have to share. Stay tuned to Pici’s Instagram page here for a chance to win one plate of truffle pasta a day for a year!
Image credit: Pici Group