Urban Explorer Series: Interview with Larry Tang
“To me, urban explorer can mean so many things. It can be a mentality of wanting to achieve higher and go somewhere you have never been. It is a pioneer mindset in which you are constantly climbing some kind of a ladder – it can be your career or even meeting some type of need. From a travel perspective, it is someone who isn’t afraid of getting their hands dirty and prefers to take an unconventional path rather than sticking to the tourist routes. For me, I love to explore overseas and prefer to backpack and explore the city through the eyes of locals.”
Founder of Locofama Group
Our Urban Explorer
Could you please introduce yourself to our guests?
My name is Larry, and I am the Founder of Locofama Group. I was born and raised in Hong Kong and grew up in both Hong Kong and Sydney, Australia. I left for Sydney in Form 5 but I have lived and worked in both cities for quite some time before I eventually settled back in Hong Kong. I worked across many areas within the marketing realm – from public relations and events to digital marketing – and even headed up my own marketing agency before opening Locofama in Sai Ying Pun. At the time, it was a health-conscious café and supermarket in which we worked closely with the city’s local farms as well as internationally to source clean fruits and vegetables free of pesticides and chemicals. It has now evolved into a restaurant offering healthy Western cuisine. A year later, we opened our second restaurant, Sohofama that comprised of healthy bites and dishes with Chinese influence to cater to a more local palate. Now today, with Locofama, Sohofama, and Supafood under our portfolio with new, exciting projects on the way, we hope to continue growing and making a positive difference in the community.
You dominated the corporate world for many years before starting Locofama and becoming the entrepreneur you are today. How was the transition and were there any initial factors that made you consider starting your own venture?
A major turning point in my career happened when I was working for a 4A’s digital agency. I was in a high-level role overlooking the Asia Pacific market, and got to a point in my career where I felt like I couldn’t grow anymore so I wanted to go out and do something on my own. I was offered similar roles at other agencies but still felt I wanted a challenge so I opened my own marketing agency and pretty much traveled around the world for two years filming for clients. I started reflecting on happiness and wanting to find purpose in life rather than being driven by materialistic pursuits. In 2013, by chance, I walked pass a vacant retail space in Sai Ying Pun directly across from organic vegetarian restaurant Grassroots Pantry and I thought to myself how interesting it would be if I could open up my own marketing agency inside the space while I displayed my clients’ products up at the storefront. I called the real estate company and found out that the two retail spaces next to me were also vacant and that they would be more than happy to rent it to me for a really good price and so I quickly agreed. Since Grassroots Pantry was right across from the space, my vision was to have a health store on one side and a café on the other, so together we could bring in more traffic to the street. I started approaching a few friends who were interested in the concept and in bringing it to life, and that’s how it all began.
Locofama and Sohofama is such a community-centric restaurant focusing on healthy eating. How did this concept first manifest?
Even before the concept of Locofama manifested, I found out that my father was diagnosed with cancer and coincidentally at the time, several of my close friends were also diagnosed with the disease and passed away shortly after which really shook my world. I started doing a lot of research about things that caused cancer and poor diet was a major contribution to cancer, amongst many other things like even the material used in toothbrush that could cause cancer. These tough moments I endured influenced my motivation to start a restaurant concept that focused on healthy eating and nutrition. For Sohofama, we wanted to enhance our concept that focused more on classic Hong Kong dishes to appeal to a more local demographic. I embarked on a quest to learn everything about nutrition – from personal trainers, nutritionists and health coaches that were experts in Western medicine to Chinese doctors.
With all these hats you wear on a daily basis, what does a day in the life of Mr. Larry Tang look like?
It is chaotic! As a creative and serial entrepreneur, it is very stressful. I don’t recommend it for everyone and I think I can handle the stress because I am delusional! There are just so many things I want to do and I think the world needs it so you just got to do it. In a way, I have adopted a mentality of trusting the universe and letting things happen as it comes. Every day is just so different but on an ideal day, I will start my morning off with 30 minutes of meditation, then shoot some basketball with a friend and hit the gym to get my daily exercise. Then, I will check my emails before attending a series of business meetings with my staff in the afternoon. I try to set up dinner meetings and work till the restaurant closes at 11PM.
What does “Urban Explorer” mean to you and how do you think you fit into this term?
To me, “urban explorer” can mean so many things. It can be a mentality of wanting to achieve higher and go somewhere you have never been. It is a pioneer mindset in which you are constantly climbing some kind of a ladder – it can be your career or even meeting some type of need. From a travel perspective, it is someone who isn’t afraid of getting their hands dirty and prefers to take an unconventional path rather than sticking to the tourist routes. For me, I love to explore overseas and prefer to backpack and explore the city through the eyes of locals.
From Farm to Table
As the mastermind behind Locofama and Sohofama, do you come up with the new menu yourself or do you work with your kitchen team? Where do you get your inspiration from? Please walk us through the creative process.
For the business, we very much follow the start-up process. Every business has a business model canvas so we are clear of what we want to do and how we want to achieve it. Every time we kick-start a new project, we start with a lead canvas where we identify our existing customer segment, the problem, and solution. I pretty much handle food business like an agency where the head chefs act as my creative directors. We have a strategy behind our menu, and we will typically get input from a scientific wellness alliance made up of nutritionists, personal trainers, health coaches, and Chinese doctors when we create the menu. It is a very collaborative culture within the alliance because we all try to contribute with our inputs to help each other’s businesses. So once we have the concept formed, I brief the team to start creating these dishes in the kitchen. We have a philosophy at the restaurant in which we believe that all the dishes we serve on the table for our guests are dishes that we will eat ourselves.
Both Locofama and Sohofama offer an array of dishes prepared with local organic produce. Can you tell us more about the farmers you work with to source produce?
We are lucky to have a sourcing manager who is a biodiversity expert that locally sources our produce. Many farmers we work with have worked in their industry for many years and already have a good idea of what produce is the best each season. Ideally, we would like to get to a point where we can work with local farmers three months in advance so they can prepare the produce for us early on rather than on an ad-hoc basis so our team also knows what sort of ingredients are to come. With that said, we also directly source our organic seafood, meat and some fruit from farmers all over the world.
Some of the dishes on your menu are from Chinese cuisine (like the Szechuan Pepper Pork Belly with Leeks– so delicious). Most Chinese dishes include a copious amount of MSG, sodium, etc. Was it difficult to recreate these dishes in true Locofama style (healthy and organic) without compromising its authentic flavours?
For these Chinese dishes, we obviously wanted delicious dishes that were healthy yet still maintained the heart and flavour of traditional Chinese cuisine. When we first worked on the menu, our chefs had a hard time creating these Chinese style dishes without using any MSG because it was what made Chinese dishes so flavourful. There is this saying that describes Chinese cooking very well, which is “MSG in your left hand and chicken powder in your right hand”. Hence, when our chefs were not to use any of these ingredients, metaphorically, it was as if we were tying both their hands. I reminded them that we were aiming for delicious, healthy dishes that they themselves would cook at home for their children, and once it clicked in their heads the final product was exactly what we envisioned. Regardless of doing business or marketing, I always apply Bruce Lee’s philosophy – “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own” – which is exactly what we did.
What is your favourite dish at Locofama/Sohofama and why?
At Locofama, we typically have 5 or 6 dishes that are frequently ordered by our guests. One of my favourite dishes is the Coconut Chicken, which is served with quinoa instead of rice mixed with a creamy green curry. The Short Rib dish is the best beef I’ve ever had and it’s super delicious. Another guest favourite is the Crab Dip. At Sohofama, I always have my mom and dad in mind when creating the menu as it has to appeal to a more local palate, but I would have to say that my favourites include the Fried Tiger Prawns with Salted Egg Yolk, the classic Fried Rice with Dried Scallops and Egg White, and the Fried Local Tiger Prawns with Scrambled Organic Egg.
What do you like most about your job?
For me, one thing I like the most about my job is the freedom I get. Whether it is running my own business or being part of a marketing agency and presenting concepts to the client, I really enjoy the creative aspect. Of course, when you are working for a client, perhaps only 15% of the final output comes from you but when it comes to running your own business, you have the freedom to call the shots.
Having such a positive impact on the way people eat in the city, how do you think Locofama Group will impact the future of the local food industry?
At this point, I feel like we have built a brand that people can trust but to be honest, I don’t think we have made as huge of an impact as I would like. Part of conscious capitalism is measuring our impact on the community, and we started off serving around 3,000 guests at our restaurant per month, then it went up to 5,000, 10,000 and then 30,000 which is still a long way off from our goal. Rather than affecting one million people’s lives, we want to affect a billion lives, so we are constantly thinking about how we can expand. We’re launching an accelerator program in October to create an ecosystem to sustain food farming and healthy consumption, we are working on our retail brand called Farmer, and we are continuously looking to expand across Asia and internationally.
So where does your inspiration for travel come from?
I must admit, the summer humidity in Hong Kong is motivation enough for me to escape the heat and go travel! On a more serious note, I really do enjoy visiting friends abroad. I have friends from all over the world so I really enjoy visiting them to experience the city the way the locals do. As they say, happiness is only real when shared so for me, travelling is a great way to connect with people. It would be ideal if I could work 3 to 5 years on a project then take a break for 3 to 6 months and travel. I don’t think I would ever want to be fully retired.
What other destinations are on your bucket list?
There are so many places I would still like to visit, but it is not like it has to be on my bucket list. I’ve been to the East Coast of the States and have yet to go to Canada but I am actually one eighth Indian so a huge part of my Indian family migrated to Canada so I would like to visit them. I would also like to visit the West Coast of the U.S. like Los Angeles and San Francisco as I have heard from many people that Locofama really has the California vibes. Perhaps in my past life I was from the West Coast! I would also like to visit Italy and Greece someday.
Exploring The City
What do you enjoy most about the city? Are there certain elements or characteristics that are visibly Hong Kong?
One thing that mesmerizes me the most about Hong Kong are the people – my family, friends and relatives. I don’t have much of an emotional attachment to a city itself because I believe you can live well anywhere in the world if you choose to, but I must admit that I really love how diverse Hong Kong is. It can be quite addictive, as it promotes an East meets West culture unlike any other city in the world, as well as mixing the old with the new. Hong Kong is a very fast and efficient place, and I love the free economy, opportunities and resources we possess.
In 3 words, how would you describe Hong Kong?
Open, Free, Adaptable