Lindsay Jang on surviving by following love

Lindsay Jang is co-owner of Yardbird HK and Ronin restaurants in Hong Kong, along with chef and partner Matt Abergel. Jang was spearheading an expansion in Los Angeles when the pandemic shut down the industry.

Back when I was in LA and COVID was starting but no one really knew what it was, we were already having issues with the landlord of our new location and we were exploring other spaces. The moment I got back to Hong Kong and everything was blowing up, we broke that lease. It just happened in the best possible way. I think the stars aligned and said, “Now is not the time to move your whole family and your organization to LA.”

Our whole way of life — and that’s why the last two years have been so weird — is about building the brand on a global scale, whether it’s through pop-ups or the book or trying to root ourselves at LA too. Suddenly it was impossible. I can’t imagine going to Los Angeles and not being able to come back to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong before COVID was already facing protests. We were affected by this, and then COVID happened. I don’t think anyone expected that. No high-end, full-service restaurant was ever built to function as a fast-casual delivery kitchen. And our food is not meant to travel that way.

But you do what you have to do. We pivoted. We did all the things that we never thought we would, like open for lunch, like open seven days a week. When we were locked down and you couldn’t even get people in your restaurant, it got was then acting pick up and delivery and building assembly lines in the dining room to make it efficient.

The last confinement from which we have just come out — we can reopen until 10 p.m. — we even changed the menu. In recent lockdowns, Hong Kong and China, by the way, didn’t have many cases, but they freaked out when there were like five cases. This time, with Omicron, everyone got it. I think half the population has had it. So all of a sudden the challenge changed to not having staff to run a restaurant because they’re all sick or they’ve had close contact.

Then there are all the isolation rules. At Yardbird and Ronin, we changed the menu to something simpler, easier to execute, easy to prepare, all that sort of thing. We are extremely lucky and grateful as we have been building these brands for 10 years. We have customers who are nostalgic for food and also supportive. It’s sad because there are a lot of restaurants that opened during COVID or just before COVID and never had a chance to build that community, and they didn’t weather the storm.

Overall, I think we did well, even though our outlook and profitability goals have completely changed. Now it’s like, let’s make sure we can break even, let’s make sure we don’t lay off staff or reduce the quality of food. There are so many things you could do to save money in the short term. But we held on. We’re not about to fire a bunch of people or order more crappy ingredients.

What I realized is that you really are a team, and we’ve always been rooted in that mentality. Everyone on our team really has a passion for it, because a lot of other people have left the industry. I think the camaraderie has definitely increased, as has the appreciation for what everyone does. We certainly haven’t lost hope. We are not unhappy. I mean, there are moments like, “How the fuck are you gonna do?” But at the end of the day, the more stockings we have, the less bad they feel next time. We now have these tools to help us out. We know it’s not permanent, hopefully. And everyone’s overall temper is less serious or dramatic than the first time around.

These days, we are always looking to expand. We are now in Hong Kong and closer to our day-to-day business than we have ever been in the past eight years. We are now considering taking Yardbird – we won’t call it that, of course – to other places. Instead of what we were going to do in Los Angeles, which was to operate it entirely ourselves, we realized that we could partner with someone in different places, which would give us the ability to do more at a faster pace. So what we are currently working on is looking for potential operational partners around the world in places where the economy seems stable, although at the moment I don’t know how you would be able to predict that. But that’s the plan.

We’ve always been hugely grateful for the loyalty of people who love the food and experience wherever we are, whether it’s with pop-ups or book sales. Matt and I always try to choose locations or concepts that relate to the neighborhood and serve the local community. I think it’s become even more relevant, even if I go back to Singapore or Dubai or wherever, Los Angeles or New York. Places where people have always said, “Oh my god, please open a restaurant here.” I think we’ve realized how much love there is for us, and we don’t take that lightly.

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