We chat to the charismatic and talented Laura Offe about her inspirations, motivations and ways of maintaining work-life balance in the hospitality industry.
With Uma Nota and Bedu under the brand’s umbrella, it’s no surprise that Meraki Hospitality has quickly become a known and loved addition to the Hong Kong dining scene. Founded in 2018 by HK-based brother and sister duo, Laura and Alexis Offe, the business ties together their Hong Kong roots with global culinary traditions, the street-food culture and top tier service. You just need to meet the siblings once to recognise that they exude the kind of charm and attentiveness that only comes from being genuinely passionate about their work. For them, that journey has meant bringing quality food to the city we call home (cheers to that!). We had the chance to chat to Laura about what it’s like running two of Hong Kong’s favourite restaurants, how she sees the business growing, as well as meaningful milestones the team has had along the way. Laura also shares some of her personal goals, her favourite downtime activities with her wife and tells us about the way she works to balance it all.
Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from and how long have you lived in Hong Kong?
I am a third culture kid. I am originally from Brittany, France but have lived most of my life in Asia. My parents have been living abroad for 40 years. I travelled throughout Asia from the age of two (I spent seven years in Jakarta, then moved to Singapore and Bangkok, before first arriving in Hong Kong when I was 14). I stayed here until graduation and then moved to Paris to study Hospitality Management. I then came back to Hong Kong to work and was part of the opening team of The Ritz-Carlton. I left again in 2012 and moved to London to work as part of the pre-opening team at The Shangri-La Hotel at The Shard. I came back three years later and opened my own consultancy business, helping restaurants to set up in Hong Kong and then Uma Nota happened, and that’s the real start of it all.
You’re the co-founder of Meraki Hospitality, can you tell us a little more about the company?
It starts off with our father actually, he left school when he was 16 and started working in kitchens. Rising through the kitchen hierarchy, he became a very talented Chef. He worked relentlessly his entire life and sacrificed a lot while we were growing up, but I never heard him complain once. He always spoke about his work with such love and passion. He’s lucky to have a very supportive wife and we’re very lucky to have a supportive mother, who taught us that you can only succeed through hard work – and through it all, you need to stay humble. This is what motivated my brother and I to join the industry. Hospitality is hard, it’s a humbling industry, it does require a lot of sacrifice, but it is also such an amazing space. No matter where you come from, if you pour your heart and soul into everything you do, you can succeed. We wanted to create a company that spoke to our passions and our philosophy of working hard, while having fun in the way we do business. We needed to find a word that explained that. So, when I stumbled upon the word Meraki, we knew that was it. Meraki is a Greek word that cannot be translated literally. It means to do something with soul, creativity and love. It is not just a word, it is an action and we believe that words and ideas are only meaningful through actions.
What encouraged you to start Meraki Hospitality? What keeps you inspired?
Our father has definitely been a strong influence.
My brother inspires me every day, he’s such a creative guy. He always comes up with the craziest ideas and has such an amazing vision…I love working with him. It’s not always easy, but having each other makes a massive difference when dealing with difficult situations.
Hong Kong is home for us, although we are French, we feel closer to this city than any other. Our parents still live here and so this is our base. We felt that Hong Kong was missing mid-ranged hang-outs, places where you can drop by for a drink, a snack and stay for dinner. A place you’ll come back to a few times a month for different reasons, whether it’s to catch up with a friend over a drink, have dinner with your partner or to celebrate a birthday with a group of friends (and not have it cost a fortune). Coming from a strong hospitality background we wanted to offer a relaxed environment, where service is genuine and attentive while not being overbearing.
The other driver for us was to create places where not only guests would want to come back, but also where our team members have fun and want to come for a drink after their shifts or come for dinner on their days off. If you have that with your team, then it means they think of your restaurant as more than a work place. We want our teams to be themselves, it makes a huge difference when it comes to guest loyalty. I think the best compliment we’ve ever had was from a guest, they mentioned that they had been able to have an actual conversation with our team members and they enjoyed coming back for that.
There’s so much that comes with starting a new company. Can you share your most meaningful milestone?
There are so many…definitely when we first opened Uma Nota because that was when we realised that this was really happening. Opening Uma Nota Paris and BEDU of course, and our 2nd year anniversary at Uma Nota where we had such an amazing turnout during our street carnival. It was amazing to see everyone come down to celebrate with us. We can’t wait to experience more!
What does a typical week look like for you?
Meetings, all day, everyday…but that’s when we exchange ideas with the team, look at what we’re doing, challenge the business and see what we need to improve! I also spend probably 50% of my time catching up with the team, seeing how they’re doing and making sure I listen to them so that we can continuously improve for them too.
What do you do in your downtime?
I try to spend time with my wife. She also has a very busy schedule so it’s not always easy, but we try to spend some quality time together, go on hikes and of course try out new restaurants, cafés and bars. We also like to escape the city every few months, go to places where we can relax our minds and where we can get inspiration for new ideas. Bali is one of our favourite spots, that’s where we go to replenish.
I also do a lot of sports, and always have. I think it’s crucial to let your brain breathe and it’s only through sports that I am able to do that. I have been dedicating quite a bit of my free time to training in Muay Thai with the most amazing coach, Pele Sarawut, at Ursus Fitness. I love the coaching team there, they push you to be better and keep it fun.
What are three things you do to maintain work-life balance in your day-to-day?
Maintaining work-life balance is a constant struggle in Hong Kong and not only for business owners. I make sure I go to the gym at least five times a week so that I can clear my head. I work and live around Central, so I always try to get out of the city on weekends, to visit one of the outlying islands or go for a hike. Being in nature really helps me relax. Most importantly, learning not to take yourself too seriously, laughing at work and having fun throughout your work week makes a huge difference in maintaining your sanity.
We love that Meraki Hospitality’s management team is made up of 60% women and a female-only office (which goes against the norm in hospitality). Can you tell us a little about your team?
Yes, sadly it’s not the norm yet to have female strong teams in hospitality and especially in Food & Beverage. I hope that continues to change though. At Meraki Hospitality, we hire on personality first. We believe that it is our differences that make us stronger. Our goal is to have a strong team of individuals who have the same drive and the same beliefs as we do.
Our management team is very female strong, with individuals from different countries and different backgrounds, some have worked in the hospitality industry before and others who haven’t. They all bring something to the table but what I love about my team the most is the amount of laughs we have on a regular basis. They’ll put in 110% when they need to, but know how to let their hair down too. I love that they are all strong independent women with their own opinions. We are also very lucky to have such a creative and entrepreneurial team who “think business” and help us grow daily.
What are five personal goals you have for this year?
I completed one of my personal goals last year when I did my first Muay Thai fight back in December. I’d been training for three years and finally decided to step into the ring. It was such an exhilarating moment. I used to do a lot of competitive sports growing up, so it felt great to get that feeling of utter focus outside of work (and winning was a plus)!
My first goal this year is to spend more quality time with my loved ones. I am a bit of a workaholic so it can be hard for me to switch off.
Secondly, I want to spend less time on Instagram (both, the restaurants’ and my own personal account). One of my main roles is to oversee the marketing of our restaurants, so knowing what our guests say about us on social media is a very important part of my job, but this leads to spending a bit too much time on social media.
My third goal is to spend more time outdoors and closer to nature. I recently went to Sumba Island, an island an hour away from Bali. It’s an island that is still very wild and where the population is very careful to preserve their land. It made me realise how rare it is to find untouched parts of the world here in Asia. Preserving the environment is very important for me. My brother and I are trying to instil that message more and more into the business too. I try as much as possible to do things less out of convenience, keeping the environment in mind. My wife and I have recycling bins at home and we managed to get the building management to place recycling bins in the building. I want to do more of that this year; that starts with not forgetting my coffee cup in the morning to pick up my take-away coffee.
Finally, I’d love to do more yoga. I tend to do high intensity sports and spend less time on relaxing the body and taking care of it, so I really need to get that into my workout regime.
When you’re not at one of your own restaurants, what’s your favourite meal?
It’s hard to say…it depends on the occasion and what I feel like. I know a lot of my French counterparts will be outraged that I’m not naming a French restaurant, but growing up in Asia; my comfort food is Asian food. A go to place for me is Chom Chom, I just love their pho rolls and their black cod. My wife and I go there at least once month. A really memorable meal for me was at Haku, the ingredients were amazing, and I loved that the Chef added South American ingredients to his dishes. Honestly one of the best meals I’ve had in Hong Kong in a long time. You can’t go wrong with a Zuma brunch either.
How do you envision Meraki Hospitality growing in the next one, five or ten years?
Our vision of Meraki is more than just a hospitality brand. Although we’re just starting out in Hong Kong, we have a long-term vision that goes beyond this city. Uma Nota Paris has set the tone for us on how and where we can take the Uma Nota brand, and consequently, Meraki Hospitality Group. Our plans are to develop within Hong Kong as well, with a few more concepts. In the next two years, we’re looking to start opening beach clubs and hotels.
We also want to make an impact in the communities we interact with and will be putting in place ways to make a more conscious impact in the future.
If you had one piece of advice to give to aspiring entrepreneurs out there, what would it be?
Go for it! Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it. If you set your mind to it and put in the work, there is no reason why you can’t succeed, it’s all about perseverance and knowing what you want!
Thanks to the talented Michelle Proctor of Michelle Proctor Photography for all of the beautiful images above! Follow her on Instagram @michellejproctor and Facebook at www.facebook.com/MichelleProctorPhotography.