Pirata Group CEO Steen Puggaard on Charting New Territory

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Pirata Group CEO Steen Puggaard on Charting New Territory

Just last month, Hong Kong F&B powerhouse Pirata Group had announced the appointment of a new CEO in succession of co-founder Manuel Palacio. Rising to bat under the title of Chairman of the Board is Steen Puggaard, who has been a strong player in the industry across the globe for over 25 years.

Puggaard’s experience in Scandinavia alone boasted names like Burger King and McDonald’s, brands that had appeared early on in his career. The Denmark native has lived and worked across Asia since 1999, pushing brands under The Robinsons Group, 4Fingers Crispy Chicken, Les Amis Group, CT Corpora, and Archipelago Capital Partners in Southeast Asia alone.



Setting his sights on launching 100 new Pirata restaurant concepts spread across five countries within the next lustrum, Puggaard shares his thoughts with The Beat Asia on Pirata Group’s new directions, how the pandemic era has reshaped operations, and his secret to growing a business while still putting people first.

What do you think have been the biggest challenges and turning points in Asia's F&B industry that you've seen since moving to the region? Similarly, were there any moments over the past few years of the pandemic that have become turning points for Pirata Group?

In Asia, we saw how serious SARS and bird flu posed a short-term crisis that caused smaller, less resistant F&B operators to throw in the towel, and some smaller operators to shut down permanently. The rise of e-commerce has caused an irreversible change in consumer spending habits which also affects F&B with increasing use of home delivery. Covid has accelerated this trend.

We need to understand if, and how we play and compete in that space. In recent times during the pandemic, we’ve noticed a shift in consumer behaviour – one thing being that dining became more lunch-driven.

Pirata Group was swift in adapting to this by transforming some of our locations into all-day dining restaurants, whilst some outlets open full day without closing in the afternoon. We also provided high value offers such as free free-flow with weekday lunch sets, or even a new meal period – “Drunch,” our early weekday dinner, as well as “Frunch,” elevated all-day Friday dining to extend the “weekend vibes.” We keep innovating not only to entertain and delight guests, but also for us to stay alive in the business. We think that in-person dining experiences are fundamental, and that’s why they remain our group focus.

How will Pirata Group prove that fast growth or expansion, and people-focused service are not mutually exclusive?

What drew me to this role in particular was the ability to apply all of my previous experience to building on Pirata Group’s outstanding commitment to its people and guests. Pirata Group takes pride in our belief that people come first, followed by the guests – and business success is the outcome of the first two done right. At year end, Pirata Group was serving an annualised 1.5 million guests and posting 59% YoY growth.

Reflecting the international nature of our home city of Hong Kong and diverse guest profile, the Group maintains over 500 permanent staff representing more than 30 nationalities and speaking more than 25 languages. We’re estimating another 300 names to add to the list by year-end of 2023 to manage new and existing outlets.

As a testament to the excellent achievements of the team over the past few years, we are reaffirming our commitment to our people and culture through a range of benefits such as increased base salaries, and a guaranteed monthly revenue share with every team member, as well as open and honest conversations with the team.

What are the biggest differences between developing and expanding restaurant concepts in Hong Kong and Asia, versus in the West? What are the biggest differences between the types of guests and diners between these markets?

I think in comparison to Western countries, Hong Kong and Australia are very “inward looking” in a positive way. Hong Kong has many home-grown brands, and Pirata Group for starters is one of them. We are founded and based in Hong Kong, and we are full of choices, so diners are less impressed by big foreign restaurant brands.

One thing that stays universal around the globe is that diners like to get their money's worth. The restaurant is a place where the dining experience is good value for money, which can be judged according to different aspects such as: food quality and quantity, service, ambience, etc.

Referring to Pirata Group’s core philosophy, what does the idea of "Unconditional Hospitality" mean to you?

For Pirata Group, the idea of “unconditional hospitality” is to try our best in allowing guests to have the best experience possible, making sure the service is: welcoming, friendly, helpful, and satisfying.

Our team is also the ambassadors of the brand. We must take care of our teammates first, let them understand the brand values and thrive, so that they can then better look after our guests by sharing these values.

Pirata Group’s next concept is a brand-new Spanish tapas restaurant named Candela that will open in Causeway Bay. What's your strategy when it comes to pairing the right cuisine or restaurant concept with the right location?

The space and location are fundamental factors of a concept and usually they will determine a lot of factors. The level of lighting, where it is located, the area’s clientele, they are all key elements that must be spot on and should be taken into consideration. We usually brainstorm together as a team to identify what is missing from that area, then devote time and effort to conduct market research before opening a new concept. We also focus on what we do best, with our strongest concepts so far being Italian, Japanese, and Spanish.

Where do you want Pirata Group and its brands to be within the next five years?

As Hong Kong emerges from the fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are on track to expand two more Pici locations – one that has newly opened during mid-July in Causeway Bay, and one to come in Quarry Bay this October. Candela will open in November at a 130-seater, split-level corner site overlooking Victoria Park.

While the pandemic is not over yet, I feel very positive and excited about the future of Pirata Group. Not only are we on track to open 13 new restaurants over 2021-2022, but we are also set to open another 10 in 2023. While we have seen great success, we are hungry to do more – we believe we still have a lot to achieve, many more guests to look after, and more memorable experiences to deliver. Our goal is to have 100 restaurants and a presence in five other countries within the next five years.

What are your favourite dishes or drinks from any of the Pirata Group's concepts?

I was blown away by TokyoLima, it was my first time trying Japanese-Peruvian cuisine and I was absolutely amazed by the flavours as well as the ambience and vibe. My favourite dish of that night would be the Ceviche XXL with tuna and sea bass, it was very unique in the way it combines freshness and flavours. It stood out as an authentic experience that made the TokyoLima restaurant experience extra memorable for me.

Lastly, what are you most excited for during your time in Hong Kong?

Even though I have only just arrived and have only just experienced a small part of Hong Kong, I am very excited to call it my new home. I went to Stanley last weekend, and I loved the local markets and architecture. It has some unique characteristics that give me a seaside resort-like feeling, and I feel like Stanley is where I can go to escape from the hustle and bustle.

I also enjoy cycling around while looking at the beautiful scenery, as I particularly love the contrast of hills against buildings. Overall, I think people in Hong Kong are very friendly, welcoming, and helpful.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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