Chris Dwyer, CNN
For Sandeep Arora, home is the ancient city of Jalandhar in the Punjab region of India. 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 local fish and chips shop – in Manchester, England, since June 2019.
Sabi Gurung, meanwhile, longs for the breathtaking mountains of Nepal, where her mother, father and beloved dog are all awaiting her first visit in nearly two years.
But thanks to a new initiative from Hong Kong Group Black Sheep Restaurantsthey will all soon return home, all expenses more or less paid.
As well as money for flights and the battery of necessary Covid tests, they will also be given additional weeks of unpaid leave to allow them to undergo Hong Kong’s notorious hotel quarantine, which the company is also paying for. (According to the city’s famous strict entry restrictionsany returning residents spend two or three weeks, at their own expense, in quarantine in designated hotels.)
And while they’re there, Black Sheep Restaurants will even deliver evening meals to them at any of their 32 restaurants.
The only caveat? These personnel complete one year of service on their return.
“It was the right thing to do”
Arora, Stott and Gurung are among more than 250 employees to benefit from the move, which will allow employees at all levels to return home. hong kong to countries as far afield as Argentina, Nigeria, France, South Africa and Australia.
The program was dreamed up by Black Sheep Restaurant co-founders Syed Asim Hussain and Christopher Mark. Hussain, is the first to admit that the move – which will cost them at least US$650,000 – is a bit crazy.
“It was a silly idea we had after 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 to make stupid decisions.
Despite this advice, Hussain and Mark went ahead.
“Our business people are amazing and help us understand liability and risk, but that’s going to stop us from doing the right thing,” Hussain said. “It’s always a business where the margins are extremely thin, but especially now. I understand that was a bit cheeky – but it was the right thing to do.
Clearly, the staff who stand to benefit, as they take advantage and return home from January, couldn’t agree more.
Among them is Stott, who has spent the past 27 months in Hong Kong.
“It’s been hard being away from my family, especially when we’ve lost loved ones,” she says.
“Just not being able to physically hug her mother and be there when she needs support has been a mental challenge. Since Covid, I’ve had to become more conservative with spending, because you just don’t know what’s in store. The cost of quarantine plus flights is money I just don’t have to spare.
She will travel to Italy next summer for a friend’s wedding, before flying to Manchester, in the North West of England, to see her family and her dog – and enjoy some good fish and chips .
“We have a little black schnauzer named Pippin and she loves taking long walks in the fields near my parents’ house,” Stott says. “There’s nothing but green hills for miles, I never thought I could miss that cold wind that gives cold ears. So fish and chips! It’s a tradition for my first meals every time I visit home. Fish, chips, mushy peas.
Her family’s reaction was understandably emotional.
“My family was blown away. My dad said he already knew I worked with great people, but this was by far the most generous gesture he’d come across. My mom just sobbed,” she said.
Arora is a restaurant manager and sommelier at two Black Sheep restaurants across from each other, New Punjab Club – the only Punjabi restaurant in the world to have been awarded a Michelin star – and Carbona sister restaurant to Carbone in New York.
“I haven’t been home since the pandemic started, which has been very difficult for me and my family,” he says. “My son is only eight, so he’s at an age where they seem to grow so much, even in a month. Coming back to Hong Kong from India means 21 days in a hotel. Before the pandemic, I used to go back every six months.
As a veteran of the restaurant industry, the first thing he looks forward to eating is home-cooked meals.
“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 missed it so much,” he says. “It’s the first thing she does for me every time I come 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 come home means so much,” says Arora. “Besides being with my family, I am really excited to travel again, I want to visit every corner of Punjab, especially the mountains. We will be walking along the rivers, staying at resorts and just being in the nature.
There are also elements of working in the hospitality industry that make it all the more difficult to be away from family, he says.
“With the holiday season approaching, there will be lots of families in restaurants celebrating. It can be a bit difficult when you’re away from loved ones but it’s always like that when you work in hospitality, even before the pandemic. For these moments, we make guests our families.
Gurung, an eight-year-old employee of Black Sheep Restaurants who runs operations at the group’s Parisian-style steakhouse La Vache, says being away from his family during an outbreak has raised real concerns.
“I’m from Pokhara in Nepal, a 20 minute flight from Kathmandu, a beautiful part of the world,” she says. “This is where my mother, my father and my dog live.
“Obviously when you have relatives of a certain age who are so much more vulnerable to this virus, you worry about them. It’s just a constant concern in the back of your mind. Since vaccinations, the situation in my hometown is much better, but it’s been pretty bad for a while, not like here in Hong Kong. This opportunity to come home means so much to my parents and myself. It made me really proud.
Local food – and heart-pounding views – are also on its agenda.
“I was craving momos (Nepalese dumplings) and samosas which we ate when my friends and I were hanging out at university. I miss those days! Then make a coffee, sit on my roof and watch the view of the Himalayas .
Clearly, as a successful group with over 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 the pockets deep enough to provide employees with this very special benefit.
Given that restaurant groups are often seen as the bad guys, Hussain expects the move to be met with a healthy combination of optimism and cynicism.
“Bands are notorious for removing value from the people who work for the band, 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 the other parties.”
As for any staff who might try to take advantage of — say — the program?
“My instructions to our management team are not to strictly control this. Let’s bring people home. It would be terrible if it involves checking the documentation. We don’t want to be draconian about the implementation, because then it loses weight and value. If someone wants to go to the beach, they must need it!
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Top image: Carbone, one of 32 restaurants in the Black Sheep restaurant group in Hong Kong. Credit: Black Sheep Restaurants