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 has not seen her parents – or eaten at her beloved local fish shop – in Manchester, England, since June 2019.
Sabi Gurung, meanwhile, dreams of the breathtaking mountains of Nepal, where her mother, father and beloved dog have all been waiting for her first visit in almost two years.
But thanks to a new initiative from Hong Kong Black Sheep Restaurant Group, they’ll all be heading home soon – all expenses, more or less, paid.
In addition to the money for the flights and the necessary Covid test battery, they will also receive additional weeks of unpaid leave to allow them to undergo the infamous Hong Kong hotel quarantine, which the company is also paying for. (According to the city’s famous strict entry restrictions, all returning residents spend two or three weeks, at their own expense, in quarantine at designated hotels.)
And during their stay, Black Sheep restaurants will even deliver meals to them every night at one of their 32 restaurants.
The only downside? These personnel complete one year of service upon their return.
“It seemed like the right thing to do”
Arora, Stott and Gurung are among more than 250 employees to benefit from the move, which will allow employees of all levels to return home from Hong Kong to countries as far away as Argentina, Nigeria, France, South Africa and Australia.
The program was created by the co-founders of Black Sheep Restaurant, 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 little crazy.
“It was a silly idea we had after one 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 did so.
“Our business people are amazing and help us understand responsibility and risk, but that’s going to prevent us from doing the right thing,” Hussain says. “It’s still a company where the margins are very slim, but especially now. I understand it was a little cheeky, but it was the right thing to do.
It is clear that the staff who should take advantage of it, since it is taking advantage of it and going home from January, totally agree.
Among them is Stott, who has spent the past 27 months in Hong Kong.
“It has been difficult to be away from my family, especially when we have lost loved ones,” she says.
“Just not being able to physically hug her mom and be there when she needed support was a mental challenge. Since Covid, I have had to become more conservative when it comes to spending because you just don’t know what lies ahead. The cost of quarantine and theft is money I just don’t have to spare. “
She will be heading 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 real fish and chips. .
“We have a little black schnauzer named Pippin and she loves taking long walks in the fields near my parents’ house,” says Stott. “There is nothing but rolling green hills for miles, I never thought I could miss that cold wind that makes your ears cold. So fish and chips! It is a tradition for my first meal every time I visit the house. Fish, fries, mashed peas.
Her family’s reaction was understandably emotional.
“My family was blown away. My dad said he already knew I worked with amazing people, but it was by far the most generous gesture he has encountered. My mom just sobbed, ”she says.
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 received a Michelin star – and Carbon, a sister restaurant of Carbone in New York.
“I have not been home since the start of the pandemic, which has been very difficult for me and my family,” he says. “My son is only eight years old, 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 went there every six months.
As a veteran of the restaurant industry, the first thing he looks forward to eating is home cooking.
“I can’t wait to eat my mother’s cooking, especially her baingan bharta with roti. It’s a simple eggplant dish from the Punjab, but I missed it so much, ”he says. “It’s the first thing she does for me every time I go back.”
For many, it’s also just traveling somewhere – anywhere – outside of Hong Kong for the first time in two years.
“The ability to come home means so much,” says Arora. “Besides being with my family, I am really happy to travel again, I want to visit all corners of Punjab, especially the mountains. We will walk along rivers, stay in resorts and just stay in nature. ”
There are also elements of working in the hospitality industry that make it all the more difficult to get away from family, he says.
“With the holiday season approaching, there will be a lot of families in restaurants to celebrate. It can be a bit difficult when we are away from loved ones, but it is always so when working in the hospitality industry, even before the pandemic. For these moments, we make the guests our families.
Gurung, an eight-year-old employee of Black Sheep Restaurants, who runs the operations of 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 mom, dad and dog live.
“Obviously when you have parents over a certain age who are so much more vulnerable to this virus, you worry about them. It’s just a constant preoccupation at the back of your mind. Since the vaccinations, the situation in my hometown has been much better, but it has been pretty bad for a while, not like here in Hong Kong. This opportunity to come home means a lot to my parents and to me. It made me really proud.
Local food – and sights to make your heart beat – is also on her agenda.
“I craved momos (Nepalese dumplings) and samosas that we ate when my friends and I hung out at college. I miss those days! Then make a coffee, sit on my rooftop and watch the view of the Himalayas.
Clearly, as a thriving group with over 30 restaurants to its name – along with ambitious future expansion plans in London, Paris, and possibly elsewhere – Black Sheep Restaurants has the size and pockets deep enough to deliver. this very special benefit to employees.
Since restaurant groups are often seen as the bad guys, Hussain expects this move to be met with a healthy combination of optimism and cynicism.
“Groups are known to derive value from the people who work for the group, from the guests, from the vendors,” he says. “So it’s really 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 the people home. It would be horrible if it was to check the documentation. We don’t want to be draconian about the implementation because then it loses its weight and value. If anyone wants to go to the beach, they must need it!
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Top image: Carbone, one of the 32 Hong Kong restaurants of the Black Sheep group. Credit: Black Sheep Restaurants