[Sponsored] …The answer, according to Rody Kwok, The Sandwich Club’s General Manager, is relatively simple, “we just focus on value for money because we know that this is a competitive market where people have a good idea of what they want from a catering company but don’t expect to pay through the nose.”
But what does this mean in practice? While an event can end up memorable for all the right reasons when accompanied by a vibrant, varied buffet or lavish mezze platter, even the best-planned function can fall apart in the presence of a plate of flaccid sandwiches.
This is where professional caterers earn their stripes. Whipping up a meal for large numbers of people in a space that (often) lacks kitchen facilities is an art; one that requires experience, quick thinking in the face of time pressure and the ability to work in unfamiliar environments – on top of the logistics involved in hiring temporary catering staff for the largest events.
“It isn’t the cooking that’s hard [at large events], it’s the serving,” explains Kwok. “We catered for an event with some 3,000 people a couple of years ago. There are one or two things we can do in these situations. We’ll get a number of our kitchens to help prepare the food, and we’ll get in brigades of part-timers. It’s all a matter of planning.”
The Sandwich Club launched in 1993 when a group of three food-loving friends opened a small outlet selling sandwiches in Quarry Bay. “The founders were all interested in food but had a modest amount of money to invest, so they couldn’t open a full-scale restaurant at that time,” says Kwok, who joined the company in 2001.
“One of the early customers, who was a staff member at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) said, ‘Why don’t you put in a tender to operate the coffee shop at HKUST?’ And that is what happened.”
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”200″ size=”18″ bg_color=”#000e6d” txt_color=”#ffffff”]”We realised if we could do [catering] for universities, we could do it for other people.” – Rody Kwok.[/mks_pullquote]With that, The Sandwich Club opened The Coffee Shop, a cafe on the HKUST campus that rapidly became a popular fixture for hungry students. “It was a terrifying leap, in a good way!” laughs Kwok of the company’s move to institutional catering.
“The Sandwich Club had been a very small operation [until then],” he continues. “But The Coffee Shop built up rapidly and was soon catering to up to 4,000 people per day. It was all trial and error, but the good thing about being in a university is that it’s a fairly stable customer base; students are very used to expressing their opinions about what they want and don’t want.
“That might sound like a burden, but it ended up being quite handy as they gave plenty of feedback! You also see the same customers every day. It was more than business – our relationship with our customers has always been very close. I love that feeling.”
The Sandwich Club soon went on to open and operate numerous coffee shops, cafes and coffee carts across universities including Baptist University, PolyU and UST as well as a 200-seat Chinese restaurant and 500-seat canteen at CUHK.
It also ran outlets at a number of Institutes of Vocational Education and what is now the Education University. Amassing such wide experience of institutional-level catering meant taking a sideways step into function catering became the logical move for the company, just a couple of years later.
“The universities had all these conferences, functions and meetings that they asked us to make food for,” says Kwok. “We realised if we could do [catering] for universities, we could do it for other people.”
Two decades ago, The Sandwich Club launched a separate function catering service, named Bistro Bistro. Now employing some 150 people, Bistro Bistro has grown to be the largest arm of The Sandwich Club, dishing up quality food at events such as private parties, conferences, corporate functions and weddings, all prepared at a central kitchen in Tsuen Wan.
“Bistro Bistro was started from the point of view that, generally speaking, Western caterers are expensive,” says Kwok. “We wanted to offer a quality alternative at a good price point. Later on, we added Chinese, Asian and Indian food to our menus, too.”
With extensive, customisable set menus, Bistro Bistro can sate event-goers with premium offerings such as smoked duck breast, beef rendang and escargot vol-au-vents, as well as more traditional canapés and salads. The company has carved out a niche as one of the city’s finest and best-value function caterers and boasts clients including Asia Society, Cancer Fund HK, HK Bar Association and Savannah College of Art and Design.
Last week, as part of its parent company’s 25th-anniversary celebrations, Bistro Bistro revealed a newly designed website, complete with the addition of AliPay and WePay options for added customer convenience.
“We have also just launched a bento box for events,” adds Kwok. “It’s based on the Japanese idea for an attractive box containing a variety of food for one person. They’re proving very popular for conferences and big meetings because they can be served very quickly and don’t require any self-service.”
Kwok pauses when asked to reflect on some of the most critical factors behind the company’s accomplishments. “Never serve something you wouldn’t eat yourself,” he tells us sagely. You won’t find a flaccid sandwich at an event catered by Bistro Bistro, and it turns out that’s a real recipe for success.