Setting up a chain of top-quality butcheries and delis in today’s time of veggies might sound like an uphill struggle. But with his new retail venture Steak King, Johnny Glover reckons he’s on to a winner. We find out why.
At a time when we’re constantly exhorted to change the way we eat, and to shift from an animal-based diet to one in which plants predominate, Johnny Glover might be said to be swimming against the tide. Because the food retailer- cum-restaurateur, who became famous among Hong Kong gourmands through earlier ventures such as Pacific Gourmet and The Butchers Club, is back in business under a new – and unashamedly carnivorous – name: Steak King.
I’m meeting the expat Yorkshireman at The Factory, the upper-floor space – part butchery, part kitchen, part retail store and part private dining room – in the Wong Chuk Hang godown where he runs his Steak King operation. Lining the walls are voluminous glass-fronted refrigerators, packed with every cut of top-quality beef, lamb, pork and chicken imaginable, as well as sausages, pies, ready-made meals and all manner of seafood. In some cabinets, huge hunks of beef on the bone, most of them specially ordered by customers, sit for weeks on end in a humidity- and temperature-controlled dry-ageing process that will leave them richer in flavour, more tender in texture, lighter in weight and – inevitably – considerably more expensive that if they’d been sold fresh-cut. It’s a process that Glover introduced to Hong Kong when he set up The Butcher’s Club almost a decade ago, though rather than high-end butchery, he says he actually started out in the food-retailing business selling seafood.
“The first location was in Ap Lei Chau’s Horizon Plaza,” he says of his first wholesale venture, which later morphed into the Pacific Gourmet stores. “It was a warehouse, similar to this, and I put some fridges at the front. I remember on the first day I was there by myself, and I think I had about four customers that day. And then a journalist from NowTV did a little video – they filmed me with all these oysters, seafood, and these beautiful red snappers – and next day there’s literally a queue out of the door. And I realised that by putting a shopfront on the wholesale concept, people liked it – they think they’re getting a deal, and they are! And that concept has always stuck with me. So whatever I’ve done after that, it’s always had that look and feel about it.”
Glover admits that he gets “bored pretty easily. I have two or three years in me where I’ll kill myself to build something up and make it as big as I possibly can, and then once I’ve got it to a stage when it’s saleable I’ll try and find someone to buy it.” And that’s exactly what happened with Pacific Gourmet, which “a rich banker” took off his hands around 10 years ago.
He’d also realised pretty early on that seafood was “a ticking time bomb. It’s stressful, it’s hard dealing with live oysters and seafood, you’ve got to move it quick. And those difficulties are what brought me into meat, because [with the latter] the shelf life is one or two months, and then you can dry-age it for another two months. I like that idea, because you’re actually getting paid to let it go out of date!”
Thus, when The Butcher’s Club began – in an Aberdeen warehouse, of course – a dry-ageing room was set up alongside the rows of freezers and a table for 16 diners. It was there that Glover hosted private dinners where the star was a huge piece of beef, which attracted a high-end clientele that included “heads of state, tycoons from Singapore and tons of people from Mainland China. Quite often there’d be a motorcade of armoured vehicles downstairs and bodyguards outside – it became a real thing. We charged upfront and at one point we had a six-month waitlist, every day including lunch on Sundays.”
In growing that brand into a chain with outlets in Singapore, Bali, mainland China and Taiwan, as well as six stores in Hong Kong, Glover also developed a penchant for what he calls “guerrilla marketing. Social media was really starting to take hold – this would have been 2013 – so I bought a pick-up truck and we wrapped it in matte black and put a big barbecue in the back. And we posted on social media that we were opening this restaurant, but the week before we were going to do a trial run in Lan Kwai Fong.
“So we parked outside of Wagyu and 400 people showed up. Of course, the guys at Wagyu weren’t happy, so they called the police, who told us to move, and we said no, knowing that they were going to arrest me. And they did, and we filmed it – and this was all live on Facebook. Of course there was an uproar, but whatever, we opened the restaurant the next week and there was a queue 200 metres long to get in. And we were doing 1,000 burgers a day, every day, for about a year. It was amazing. That restaurant was doing close to $3 million revenue a month from 400 square feet.”
True to form, having built up the The Butchers Club, Glover sold the business on around four years ago and, after a spell of gardening leave, he’s back with his latest venture. “This journey has been about refining, all the time,” he says. “The mistakes we made with Pacific Gourmet, I think we rectified them with The Butchers Club. And the mistakes I made with the Butchers’ Club I want to rectify with Steak King. I like retail. With restaurants there’s lot of moving parts to mess up. And though I’m still doing restaurants you’ll notice that they’re really, really simple and ingredients-driven.”
With branches already open in Sai Kung and Mui Wo, as well as The Factory HQ and more outlets on the way, Steak King is planned as a network of neighbourhood shops. Glover had noticed how, during Covid, people were coming into his Wong Chuk Hang warehouse to buy high-quality ingredients to cook at home, and that gave him an idea. “Why don’t we do little butcher shops and delis in residential locations around Hong Kong? Let’s not do it in Central or Causeway Bay. Let’s do it in Sai Kung, Mui Wo, Tung Chung or Tseung Kwan O, places where people live. Let’s create a corner shop where people can pick something up on their way home – a retail butcher shop, but we’ll have a cafe element to them, so you’ll be able to buy a sandwich, a pizza or a pie too.“Think of a 25-year-old guy,” he says of his notional customer, “who’s just bought his first house, and he’s just got off the MTR. He walks into our shop, he buys a steak, some veal jus, some nice herbs, a salad, and even a frying pan and a gourmet chef’s knife to cook them with.
“The butcher tells him how to cook it and recommends a wine and a sauce. He buys some mashed potatoes and the whole thing goes out with him under his arm, a package that allows him to cook a Michelin-star-quality meal for him and his girlfriend who’s waiting at home. That’s the idea of Steak King, it’s somewhere you can buy more or less everything you’re going to need to cook a real gourmet meal.
“And I don’t want to put these in shopping malls. I want them beside wet markets or near to Wellcome or ParknShop, and I want [the competition] to look at us and think, ‘They’re doing it right.’ You never know, maybe one day they might have to buy us out.” As to the meat-versus-plant-based debate, Glover’s philosophy is thus: “If you’re going to eat an animal, you should celebrate its life. If you’re going to eat a steak, don’t eat a crap piece of meat every day but a good one every two weeks. But it’s not all about the meat we sell, it’s also the seafood, vegetables and herbs, they all have heritage. And in all these 25 years that I’ve been in business I’ve built up relationships with farmers and fishermen [much of his meat and seafood comes from personally selected producers in Australia], and I’m still working with them now. I know that if I’m ordering a case of tenderloins they’ll give me the best.”
A hotel-management graduate and experienced chef, Glover originally arrived in Hong Kong in the 1990s to teach with the Vocational Training Council and he still lectures part-time at the Polytechnic University. His role as an educator even spills out into this current venture: along with chef Brandon Tomkinson, who formerly presided over the kitchen at Gordon Ramsey’s Hong Kong restaurant, Bread Street, he’s produced a series of short videos instructing how to prepare and cook almost every item of meat and seafood he sells, which can easily by accessed online via a QR code on each product.
“We handle it the right way and we’re teaching people how to cook it the right way,” he says. “What we’re selling isn’t cheap, but I think it’s the best value in town. And if I can convince one in 10 to try it, to cook it well and in a certain way, if I can teach some people how to cook and educate them, then my job is done.”