Within a few hours, you can go from lush jungle to a peaceful beach to a stunning mountain peak. Blessed with natural beauty islandwide and paired with a rich culture, Sri Lanka is a global tourist destination. It’s a fact that we take pride in, as the hospitality industry was among the nations top-performing until the pandemic. But even before the lockdown, it was an industry filled with challenges. During the June 2020 edition of F’Up Fridays brought to you by Hatch and ReadMe, we saw two entrepreneurs sharing their stories of unusual challenges and building thriving startups that are weathering the storm the industry is currently going through.
The secret ingredient for success: Hiring the right people
The first speaker of the day was the Co-Founder of Cafe Kumbuk, Shana Dandeniya. Growing up in the UK having studied advertising, she moved to Sri Lanka 5 years ago. She knew little about the hospitality industry but was determined to open a cafe. “It was a sink or swim situation and I’ve been swimming ever since,” said Shana looking back on the decision. Her mother assisted in the early days in setting up Kumbuk. Since then it’s evolved into a family business where everyone’s involved and creating a support system as well. In turn, helping everyone weather the challenges of running a business. Shana admits there can be challenges working with family. However, they’ve learned to set boundaries as to when they can and cannot discuss work.
Moving on to share her biggest challenges, Shana said it was hiring. Coming from the UK, she learned there was much to learn about the local working culture and the restaurant industry itself. Originally, she assumed all that was needed was a chef and someone managing the front desk. Meeting the applicants, Shana realized, “I never hired anyone before.” Previously, she had always been on the other side of the interviewing table. Ultimately, from the initial set of applicants, she hired 10 of them.
Many of them stuck with Cafe Kumbuk for a long time, “For that I’m still grateful,” said Shana. However, she admits there were some candidates who didn’t work out. “I didn’t realize the emphasis I had to place on hiring and finding the right people. They’re an extension of yourself and the values you stand for. I think that was definitely one of my biggest mistakes,” explained Shana. Having learned from these experiences, she’s augmented her hiring process and begun a trial period for all potential hires.
“It all boils down to trial and error. The more you go through that journey of hiring, the more you learn and understand what you’re looking for,” states Shana. It’s also important that your employees are empowered to make decisions on their own. She acknowledged they won’t always get it right, “When they do they shouldn’t be screamed at but given a chance to fix things.” Shana also encouraged entrepreneurs to pay themselves. It’s a tough choice given how necessary it is in the early days to invest profits back in the business. But once it’s stable, “It’s important to reward yourself for the hard work you put in. It gives you an appreciation for the backend and financial aspects of your business,” explained Shana.
In closing, Shana’s advice for anyone seeking to enter the hospitality industry was a warning that it’s a tough industry. “Honestly, it’s really difficult. But it has taught me many life lessons. This has allowed me to grow as an individual so much. I’ve learned so many things that I’d never have learned from books. For anyone going into this industry be ready. There’s going to be a lot of lows. But the highs make it worth it.”
Lessons from a veteran that has seen it all
The second speaker of the day is a veteran of the hospitality industry with almost 4 decades of experience under his belt. “After leaving school and becoming one of the first DJs in the country and entering hospitality has been a blessing for me,” said Harpo Gooneratne, Founder & CEO of Harpo’s Cafe & Restaurants.
Leaving S. Thomas’s College, he worked at one of the first international hospitality chains to operate in Sri Lanka. He would go on to work at big brand names in the hospitality industry including the Hilton and the World Trade Center. As the war hampered the hospitality industry, Harpo founded Millennium Park, which would become Excel World. After an international stint with Hitlon, Harpo returned to Sri Lanka. He worked at the John Keells Group as the General Manager of Crescat before taking the leap of faith to be an entrepreneur.
Throughout his long career, having experienced hard times, Harpo says, “I’m used to seeing challenging times like what we are seeing today.” Recalling when he set out to create Commons, which was his first restaurant, Harpo shared that people thought he was insane. It was at the height of the war and just after the tsunami had struck. Today, the coffee shop celebrates 15 years of operation, having overcome those challenges.
After founding Commons, Harpo launched Bayleaf. It would be followed by his namesake Harpos, which was Sri Lanka’s first homegrown pizza chain. He then expanded into new areas with the Park Street Mews and Curve Bar. Today, Harpo shares he’s looking at the retail market. “I believe retail is a strong market that’ll continue to grow. Especially in a post COVID world. We already have our brand of pizzas, pastas, and sauces in supermarkets,” he shared. Looking towards the future, Harpo stated that they were developing an app for food deliveries.
Harpo credited much of his success to the team behind him. Many of them have been around since the very beginning. “You’ll never be able to build a great brand if you don’t have great people,” he emphasized. Having assembled a strong team, Harpo explained there were so many factors to consider for anyone looking to open a restaurant. These ranged from location to the food to the backend system. “Lots of people think restaurants are flamboyant businesses. Look behind the scenes on a Friday night and you’ll catch a glimpse of the chaos. It’s not easy. So many things need to be right and that doesn’t happen overnight. It can take at least a year or more for everything to work out,” explained Harpo.
Reflecting on his experience, Harpo shared his perspective on the current crisis saying, “We’ve been through a war, a tsunami, and the tragic Easter Sunday attacks. But we’ve bounced back. We’ll get through the COVID crisis. I’ve seen many ups and downs while working at hotels and managing my own business. The industry has remained positive. If there’s a down then there has to be an up somewhere.” He acknowledged that the hospitality has tough questions to answer regarding its future. Nevertheless, he believes Sri Lankans patronizing restaurants, hotels, and other establishments in the hospitality industry will help ignite its revival.
He went on to share that despite his many successes, he wasn’t immune to failure. Two Harpos outlets had failed, forcing him to rethink where to open new branches. Ultimately, Harpo only had a simple piece of advice for any would be entrepreneurs seeking to enter the hospitality industry, “The business requires you to put in a minimum of 12 – 16 hours per day. Either you love it or don’t get into it.”
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