Hope & Sesame Setting the Bar Higher and Higher

By Joshua Cawthorpe, June 23, 2024

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Founded in 1893, Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne is widely recognized as the best hospitality school in the world. 

It was here that Bastien Ciocca met Andrew Ho. 

Graduating from a prestigious Swiss hospitality school is how one gets the chance to enter the world of premium hotels. 

Shangri-La Group drafted Ciocca while his Hongkongnese friend Ho was picked to play for Grand Hyatt.

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Ciocca and Ho recently opened a bar in Chengdu for Ralph Lauren. Image via HOPE Group

"Chinese hotel groups make you work a lot," Ciocca adds with a chuckle. 

"Some other (international) hotel groups are a lot more chill, but Shangri-La is very demanding, and they really squeeze you. But in this way, you learn a lot. You have a lot of responsibilities. You have to be involved in finance. You have to be involved in HR and all the aspects of hospitality. This connected the dots…"

In 2016, Ho and Ciocca decided it was time to leave the rigorous world of luxury hotels and dive into a smaller, more personalized endeavour. 

"We were kind of like f*** it. Let's put everything behind us. We want to be more cool, more easy." 

And Hope & Sesame was born.

hope-sesame-shenzhen.jpgImage via HOPE Group

The inception of Hope & Sesame came from a desire to innovate within the cocktail scene, and the duo's extensive luxury hotel experience plays an integral role. 

"Over the years, as the team grew, we began to put back a lot of practices that we learned in hotels."

Ciocca believes that, above all else, a good team is the secret to a successful bar. 

In order to find and nurture that talent, the owners need to be passionate but that alone is not enough. 

"The complexity of the formula is, when you nail down a good team that works well in that space, the energy and the right customers will follow."

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The bar team and cocktail menu at Hope and Sesame Guangzhou were recently nominated as top ten in the world for the 18th annual Spirited Awards. Image via HOPE Group

"The owners need passion to survive the ups and downs, and some of the team will leave. You always need to find new members who can deliver the hospitality that you want. The flavors, the creativity; everything sort of comes after. You could hire a consultant to design everything for you, but if you lack that passion, then business is going to die down after one or two years."

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Ciocca credits the success of his and Ho's bars to their passionate team. Image via HOPE Group

One way that Ciocca and Ho keep the passion burning within their workforce is by returning to their roots. 

If you strike up a conversation with one of the characters at work in one of their five establishments, there's a good chance that they'll be doing a 'stage' before graduating from Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne themselves. 

"These students have two different paths to choose from," Ciocca elaborates. 

"Either they work for a very small company like ours, or they enrol in management training for Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, or Ritz Carlton - those big luxury hotel groups."

Team-Hope-Group-copy.jpgA number of Hospitality graduates have returned to work with HOPE Group. Image via HOPE Group

The students who choose Hope Group for their work experience seem to enjoy it because they return like moths to a flame. 

"About eight or nine have come back to us for six months, and some even joined our company after they graduated," Ciocca tells us proudly. 

"Over the years, we've kept quite a close relationship with the school."

sanyou-shenzhen-4.jpgImage via HOPE Group

Hope & Sesame is the best bar in Mainland China, according to The World's 50 Best Bars, the Michelin-starred ranking authority for places to drink. 

Hope & Sesame was ranked 18th in Asia's Best Bars 2022, sliding to number 39 in 2023 and holding at 74th in the world. 

Hong Kong has some extraordinary contenders, and COA has held the top spot for a couple of years, but as long as we keep them at arm's length, then the original statement holds true.

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Image via HOPE Group

When asked about a bar that Ciocca visits as a customer and is truly impressed by, he also points us to Hong Kong. 

"There's a bar in Hong Kong called Bar Leone," he tells us.

"It's a very similar mindset to Charlie's (one of Hope Group's previous ventures, which now bears the name DSK). But it just opened barely a year and a half ago. Bar Leone is all about Italian beverages and food from the 1950s and 60s. It's well done but unassuming, not overly premium, and not trying to show off with fancy sofas and glassware and stuff."

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Aya is the Head Bartender at SanYou Shenzhen. Image via HOPE Group

"But the hospitality is always on point," Ciocca adds, giving us a clue to his answer to our last question. 

"When you go to Bar Leone, you ask yourself why you don't go more often. The products are really well executed, so whatever you order, whether it's a coffee or a sandwich, it's like the best thing ever. They're very famous for this mozzarella sandwich, which is kind of like a panini. And the same with the cocktails. They have some cocktails on tap, which are incredibly tasty. You wouldn't think it's just been poured from a draft machine."

classy-Italian-vibe.jpg

Image via HOPE Group

We didn't expect a conventional answer from someone with as much acclaim in the industry as Ciocca, but we never would have guessed a place like this: an Italian delicatessen time-capsule cocktail bar. 

We make a mental note to check it out.

"Bars like this, I think, might not resonate with newcomers and people who don't really understand cocktails. They will think, 'Why the hell are people telling us to come here?' People say it's amazing, but it's not very big, and it doesn't have any over-the-top grand decor. But when you create that energy, you find the 'right' customers - not just people who want to show up and take a few pictures."

We mention the fortitude of Hong Kong's cocktail scene, and also Shanghai's, wondering how Ciocca thinks the Greater Bay Area stacks up.

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Image via HOPE Group

"I think the culture in Shanghai is very strong, but Guangzhou has unique settings where many bars are owned by bartenders. It's often one person who has worked for 4-5 years, made some money, or borrowed some from family, and then opened a place. The cost of opening things in Guangzhou is not as high compared to Shanghai or Hong Kong, making it possible to do so, which is quite rare anywhere in the world. In Guangzhou, many places maintain high quality because the owner has a strong vision of what they want to do. They simply go for it and open their own place. In other cities across China and even more so overseas, there are often multiple shareholders and partners involved. These partners might say, 'We need a PR agency, a famous designer, an architect,' and the costs skyrocket. This makes the whole endeavor more conservative since there's a need to ensure the investment brings back revenue. In contrast, in Guangzhou, many people are more carefree. They think, 'I've got an idea, I want to do this. This is my plan.' They might not hold many events or promotions, and they may not have the resources to engage a lot of KOLs and magazines. However, the quality they deliver remains very high."

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Lola is the Head Bartender at Hope & Sesame Shenzhen. Image via HOPE Group

However, Ciocca also admits that the culture itself is changing with the times. 

"The whole landscape of cocktail consumption is changing," Ciocca notes. 

"Previously, making cocktails at home was not a big trend in China, unlike in the US, Canada, or Australia, where hosting home parties with a few bottles and juices is common. However, this has started to change dramatically."

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Image via HOPE Group

This shift was partly driven by economic factors and a growing desire among Chinese consumers to replicate the bar experience at home. 

"People are saying, 'Hey, I can buy a bottle of vodka for around RMB100 on Taobao. I can make drinks myself, and it doesn't cost much.' It's not just about saving money; it's also about looking cool, knowing how to mix your own drinks."

However, this trend has implications for traditional bars, especially those in cities like Shenzhen, where the cost of cocktails has surged. 

"You have new bars opening where a gin and tonic costs around RMB150, which is steep considering the actual cost of ingredients. When borders reopened, and people began traveling more, they started comparing prices. They'd wonder why a drink in Thailand costs RMB60 when it's the same quality as what they get back home for much more."

This price sensitivity has led to innovative consumer behaviors that challenge traditional bar settings. 

"I've seen a lot in Shenzhen where people buy a bottle of spirits and get it delivered to their location. They ask the restaurant for ice and glasses and then order snacks and beers to go with their bottle. It turns out much cheaper than ordering at a cocktail bar, and often the food is better, too."

Glasses-on-table-Sanyou.jpgImage via HOPE Group

According to Ciocca, this evolution is pushing bars towards two extremes. 

"On one end, you have bars lowering prices drastically, making it pointless to buy on Taobao and bring it yourself. On the other end, you have bars that focus on delivering high-quality experiences that you can't replicate at home - these are the places that still draw people in. The middle-tier bars, which don't offer distinctive quality or value, are the ones struggling the most."

Ciocca believes that in the volatile and unforgiving hospitality industry, the most important factor for success is passion. He emphasizes that a team or owners must have a deep passion for the industry. This passion allows them to navigate the inevitable ups and downs, such as team members leaving and needing to find new talent who can deliver the desired level of hospitality and creativity.

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Chen is the Bar Manager at SanYou Shenzhen. Image via HOPE Group

Ciocca points out that while having substantial financial resources can allow one to hire consultants to handle various aspects of the business, without passion, the endeavor is likely to falter after a year or two. 

For long-term success, a genuine love and dedication to the industry are essential. 

This passion drives continuous innovation and adaptation, ensuring that the business remains relevant and vibrant over time. Location is also a critical factor.  Ciocca notes that having a prime location with high tourist traffic can make a significant difference.  In such locations, even mediocre establishments can thrive due to the sheer volume of visitors.

However, for most businesses, success hinges on the team's ability to maintain their enthusiasm and adapt to changing circumstances.  Without a passionate and dedicated team, even the best location cannot guarantee long-term success. Ciocca also highlights the importance of maintaining a strong team.  Many bars start with a highly creative and motivated team, but after a couple of years, they can lose their sparkle and magic. This loss of enthusiasm often leads to a decline in quality and customer experience, contributing to the short lifespan of many establishments. 

Thus, sustaining passion and continuously fostering a dynamic team environment are crucial for enduring success in the hospitality industry.


Hope & Sesame, Guangzhou

No.48 Miaoqian West Street, Yuexiu, Guangzhou

For Reservations: +86-18819353462

DSK Cocktail Club

No.1 Qiming First Road, Yuexiu, Guangzhou

For Reservations: +86-15361795557

Hope & Sesame, Shenzhen

B101, No.2 Qiaochengfang, Qiaoxiang Road, Nanshan, Shenzhen

For Reservations: +86-13316946120


[Cover image via HOPE Group]

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