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Burrito Chain Plans Massive Rollout in Hong Kong

The CEO of Cali-Mex tells Localiiz he will open 20 taquerias across Hong Kong as early as February 2016 – just 16 months after opening the first location in Central. And he doesn’t plan to stop there.

After raising enough investor funding last year in an impressive four-week windfall for 20 restaurants, the restaurant chain’s leader, Jeff Moss, says he is rolling out each new branch as opportunities arise. The only hurdle, according to Moss, is that the large casinos and resorts on Macau are stealing away many of Hong Kong’s best food and beverage talent. Even as he searches high and low for top talent, two new Cali-Mex restaurants will welcome diners this week in Wan Chai and SoHo, making seven openings in six months.

“We’re Fairly Aggressive”

Moss doesn’t believe in soft openings. His put-it-all-out-there attitude is a rarity in Hong Kong, a city that regularly hosts official restaurant openings after diners have been eating there for months. Perhaps that’s why in September he initially opened four Cali-Mex branches in Central, Quarry Bay, Wan Chai, and Lan Kwai Fong.

Cali-Mex expanded its offerings in December with first-come-first-served grab-and-go breakfast options. PHOTO: Cali-Mex Taqueria
Cali-Mex expanded its offerings in December with first-come-first-served grab-and-go breakfast options. PHOTO: Cali-Mex Taqueria

Saddled with a misnomer for a surname, Moss is more of a rolling stone or better yet a comet streaking through Hong Kong’s restaurant scene, opening Cali-Mex branches almost as fast as customers are queuing up for the chain’s self described “Mexican food, California style” menu. He says he believes in starting strong, building enough of a foundation where the competition can’t easily put you out of business.

“We’re fairly aggressive,” says Moss. In addition to opening quickly Cali-Mex has been blessed with excellent, high-traffic locations. Along Wellington Street, Moss says the location of their first restaurant was somewhat influenced by the line of hungry customers waiting outside MANA! The Sheung Wan location is hard to miss during commutes when slow moving commuters queue up to ride the MTR across the street.

Early Days

For Moss the burrito business wasn’t always so smooth. After nearly three decades in retail fashion, as founder of the 500-store Pretty Girl empire in Australia, he started several other ventures before quickly opening the Original California Burrito Company with 10 restaurants in New Zealand, Australia, and the Netherlands. However a contentious divorce from his wife/business partner resulted in the bank withdrawing its funding, putting 100 employees out of work. Just Google Moss and the headlines will appear, but he says those troubles are over now since he arrived in Hong Kong and the “crooks” stayed behind.

So when a former board member of Pretty Girl moved to Hong Kong he told Moss to bring his shuttered taqueria business. A successful investor tasting in Sheung Wan spurred the four-week investment windfall and Moss moved to Hong Kong.

Smaller portioned children's meals have been a hit among younger diners, Moss says. PHOTO: Cali-Mex Taqueria
Smaller portioned children’s meals have been a hit among younger diners, Moss says. PHOTO: Cali-Mex Taqueria

Moss now sits atop a booming chain of restaurants with expanding features including corporate catering, a children’s menu, grab-and-go breakfast meals, and starting February 16, online ordering and delivery.

The success of Cali-Mex, Moss says, lies with understanding and mastering the supply chain. Drawing on his retail experience, he seems to enjoy solving issues by controlling logistics and sourcing the right ingredients.

Since day one, Moss had enough funding to build a 9,000 square foot central kitchen facility in Tin Wan where a team of 14 chefs and prep cooks start producing many Cali-Mex ingredients, including 1,500 tortillas daily from 4-7am.

The control he exerts on logistics means stores experience less hiccups and greases the wheels for the next opening. He plans two more by May in Say Ying Pun and Causeway Bay, one month ahead of schedule.

Feeding the Local Appetite

As Cali-Mex expands, feeding the local market is a real concern. Appealing to expats familiar with Mexican food is not as challenging as educating Hong Kongers about a new cuisine. Luckily, local residents are curious and they now make up two thirds of Cali-Mex diners. While restaurants did recently roll out a Peking Duck burrito aimed at local consumers, Moss acknowledges its reception was “not amazing but good”. A rare misstep so far from the CEO who does not want to dive too deep into concepts for fear of being “too clever”.

Moss is also learning about Hong Kong’s noisy restaurant market. “There’s always so much opening that people get distracted.” Moss cites the opening of his Quarry Bay restaurant being joined with six other store openings in the same month along the same street.

As Cali-Mex expands, Moss is relying on customer satisfaction to spur on even further growth, beyond the planned restaurants. Moss relies on grassroots efforts through social media and word of mouth recommendations, without any funding going towards paid advertising. So far it’s drawing hundreds of people to each store every day and he doesn’t plan to change the formula.

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