This is hardly an ideal time to be opening a restaurant. What are your stress levels like?
Pretty high. Running BAO has been tough these last six months. There's been so much change and uncertainty to deal with. We feel like we're constantly having to revise our plans. We were halfway through the build at Cafe BAO when it all kicked off (the King's Cross restaurant was slated to open in April). We resumed the build about a month ago. Handover is a week or so away and we're hoping to open the doors in early November. We probably could have launched a bit earlier, but we haven't had the bandwidth - getting the existing restaurants back open and launching two delivery services (Rice Error and BAO Made By You) was a big task.
Which BAOs are currently open?
Our original restaurant in Soho and our newer Borough Market site. We've also relaunched our stall at Netil Market in Hackney, which used to only open one day a week but now trades seven days a week. We've yet to open BAO Fitzrovia. We're not confident about re-opening that one at the moment unfortunately.
Tell us about Cafe BAO...
It's inspired by Western-style cafés in Asia. They're called boleros in Taiwan and kissetens in Japan. These places are creating their own interpretation of Western food, and I guess we're taking that back here and giving people our interpretation of their interpretation, if you see what I mean. Boleros were popular in Taiwan in the 60s and 70s. They're a nostalgic thing. The design will take inspiration from these places but it will also be reminiscent of the existing BAO sites with a lot of light timber.
What's the setup?
The space is different to the other BAOs because it's multifaceted. It's going to feel busy - there's going to be a lot of different stuff going on. Downstairs, we have a 60-cover restaurant, an open kitchen, a bakery and a grab-and-go counter. There's also a mezzanine area which will eventually be used as a workshop, but for now it will be used as a PDR and as overflow for the main restaurant.
It's on hold because of the current situation, but eventually it will be a space where people can come and learn how to make bao. We'll do a number of different courses, from making our signature gua bao from scratch to more involved lessons on bao decoration. We're hoping it will be popular with the corporate market.
What's on the menu?
The restaurant will offer a mix of classic western and Asian dishes, including a hamburger bao, lobster bao and fried chicken XO butter kiev. Desserts will include 'Lonely Pudding' - our iconic lonely man embodied in a classic creme caramel flan - and BAOfiteroles with Horlicks ice cream with chocolate sauce. As with all the BAO sites, the menu will also feature classic BAO dishes including our gua bao and Taiwanese fried chicken. BAO Bakery Goods (BBG) will offer a range of handmade baked goods including the molten chocolate and salted egg ‘muffin’ bao; salted caramel BAO Cookie, and pizza bao (pictured) alongside limited edition celebration items. BBG will also feature a bespoke bao making service and serve coffee and bubble tea to takeaway.
What will breakfast involve?
Breakfast will launch a little after opening. But it will be a combination of Western breakfast food and the sort of food people eat for breakfast in Taiwan. We're going to do a congee 'pie' topped with puff pastry; Taiwanese spring onion pancakes with bacon and egg; and our take on the Hong Kong-style macaroni soup.
It sounds like quite departure from the existing BAO sites...
Yes and no. Our strategy has always been to bring something slightly different to each BAO, for example Borough serves a lot of grilled dishes and is a bit rowdier whereas BAO Soho is more about our interpretation of Taiwanese street food. But Cafe BAO will be the most different yet, and it does of course have a different name.
You've launched not one but two delivery services - how is that side of the business going?
We've been in discussions about delivery for years but it never materialised, partly because finished baos do not travel well. But the pandemic has forced our hand and we've had to diversify the BAO brand. We started out with Rice Error, which is a hot food offer that's available to pick up in restaurant or have delivered by a courier. We opted to sub brand it because it allowed us to create a tweaked offer that was more suited to delivery (as the name suggests it's focused on rice boxes), although we do offer hot bao kits that people assemble at home.
And the Made By You kits?
These do carry the BAO brand and are sent out refrigerated nationwide for people to cook at home. We weren't the first movers in meal kits by any means (the service launched towards the end of lockdown) but it's still been pretty crazy, we were doing up to 500 kits a week. It's slowed down since restaurants have reopened, but it's still an important part of what we do. It's quite profitable, too, because we're able to sell merchandise and alcohol, which have good margins. Having these delivery offers in place gives us options if our eat-in trade gets disrupted again, as does the grab-and-go element of Cafe BAO.