By Chris Mohney
Lindsay Jang is co-owner of Yardbird HK and Ronin restaurants in Hong Kong, along with chef and partner Matt Abergel. Jang was spearheading an expansion into Los Angeles when the pandemic shut down the industry.
Back when I was in Los Angeles and COVID was starting, but no one really knew what it was, we were already having issues with the landlord for our new location, and we were exploring other spaces. By the time I got back to Hong Kong and everything was blowing up, we got out of that lease. It just happened in the best way possible. I think the stars aligned and were like, “Now is not the time to move your entire family and your organization to Los Angeles.”
The whole way we’ve been living—and this is why the last two years have been so strange—is building the brand globally, whether it’s through pop-ups or the book or trying to root ourselves in Los Angeles as well. All of a sudden, that was impossible. I can’t imagine having gone to LA, and not being able to come back to Hong Kong.
Hong Kong before COVID was already dealing with protests. We got hit with that, and then COVID came. I don’t think anyone was expecting it. No upscale full-service restaurant has ever been built to function as a fast-casual delivery kitchen. And our food is not meant to travel that way.
But you do what you have to do. We pivoted. We did all the things we never thought we would do, like open for lunch, like open seven days a week. When we got locked down and you couldn’t even have people in your restaurant, then it was pickup and delivery and building assembly lines in the dining room to make it efficient.
The last lockdown that we’re just getting out of—we get to open again until 10 pm—we even changed the menu. During the last few lockdowns, Hong Kong and China, for that matter, didn’t have a lot of cases, but they were freaking out when there were like five cases. This time, with Omicron, everyone’s had it. I think half the population has had it. So all of a sudden the challenge changed to not having have staff to actually run a restaurant because they’re all sick, or they have had a close contact.
Then there’s all the isolation rules. At Yardbird and Ronin, we changed the menu to something simpler, easier to execute, easy to prep, all that kind of stuff. We are extremely fortunate and grateful because we’ve been building these brands for 10 years. We have customers who are nostalgic about the food and also supportive. It’s sad because there are a lot of restaurants who either opened during COVID or opened right before COVID and never had the chance to build that community, and they haven’t weathered the storm.
All in all, I think that we have been fine, though our perspective and goals of profitability have completely changed. Now it’s like, let’s make sure we can break even, let’s make sure we don’t have to let go of any staff, or cut the quality of the food. There’s so many things that you could do to save money in the short term. But we’ve stood our ground. We’re not about to fire a bunch of people or order shittier ingredients.
What I have realized is you really come together as a team, and we’ve always been anchored in that mentality. All of our team members truly have a passion for this, because a lot of other people have left the industry. I think the camaraderie has definitely increased, and so has the appreciation for what everyone does. We definitely haven’t lost hope. We’re not disgruntled. I mean, there’s moments of like, “Fuck, how is this going to work?” But at the end of the day, the more downs that we experience, they don’t feel as bad the next time. We now have these tools to get through it. We know that this isn’t permanent, hopefully. And the overall temperament of everyone is less dire or dramatic than it was the first time.
These days, we’re still looking to expand. We’ve been in Hong Kong now and closer to our business on a day-to-day basis than we’ve ever been in the last eight years. We’re now considering taking Yardbird—we won’t name it that, of course—to other places. Instead of what we were going to do in Los Angeles, which was completely operate it ourselves, what we’ve realized is that we can partner with somebody in different locations, which would give us the ability to do more at a faster pace. So what we’re working on now is looking at potential operating partners around the world in locations where the economy seems stable, although right now I don’t know how you would ever be able to predict that. But that’s the plan.
We’ve always been extremely appreciative of the loyalty of the people who love the food and the experience wherever we are, whether that’s with pop-ups or book sales. Matt and I always try and choose locations or concepts that are about the neighborhood and serving the local community. I think that has become even more relevant, even if I go back to Singapore or Dubai or wherever, Los Angeles or New York. Places that people have always been like, “Oh my god, please open a restaurant here.” I think we’ve realized how much love there is for us out there, and we don’t take that lightly.