Born and raised in Argentina, Juan Gimenez is bringing the sweet taste of his home to Hong Kong through its much-loved churros!
Juan Gimenez moved to Hong Kong on a quest to work with the best 5-star hotels in the world. At that point, he thought he would be here for two years only. But as often happens with the best-laid plans, they didn’t go as he imagined. 10 years on, married with two beautiful daughters and a rapidly expanding business – Twist & Buckle, Juan finds himself in love with the city’s dining scene, dynamics and the people. He says there’s no looking back from Hong Kong!
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Were you always interested in the Food & Beverage (F&B) industry?
Actually, I was always interested in nature and its preservation. Initially, I studied oceanography but because I was also determined to move out at 18, I worked at a restaurant while studying. From this experience, I learned to appreciate food and beverage and spent most of my paychecks going out to the best restaurants in town. I ultimately dropped oceanography and studied hospitality.
What is your regular day job? What do you enjoy about it?
I run F&B for Ovolo in Hong Kong. I like the company’s ethos and lack of bureaucracy. Decisions are taken on the spot, quickly and efficiently. In an F&B environment, that’s exactly what you need. We are a big international company that moves at the speed and hierarchy of a startup. Most importantly, with the same passion, creativity and ingenuity. I like to be surrounded by like-minded and passionate people. This job allows me that!
Why did you set up Twist & Buckle?
I’ve always wanted to open my own place in Hong Kong, and after things settled with my two little ones, I got a bit more organised (well, as organised as you can get with two kids!). I thought it would be the perfect time to start something with a partner.
My partner and co-founder in the business is someone I used to work with 12 years ago. We both were bartenders back then and we got along very well. After I moved to Hong Kong, I encouraged him to come here and thankfully, he’s loved it too. When we were thinking of concepts, we decided on churros because it has a sentimental, authentic value behind it. It’s something we both loved as kids growing up in Argentina.
“Back home, when I was little, I’d go with my Mum to buy fresh bread every day. The baker would always give me a churro to eat while he was preparing all the orders.”
We love those memories and wanted to bring them to the people of our new home. We opened our first location in July 2020.
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Why the name Twist & Buckle?
We wanted something with “&” like law firms, which started out as a joke with deciding whose name would go first! But when we were developing the concept, we decided we would make our churros different by twisting and buckling them up to get their loop shape. The rest is history.
You have mentioned that you have the “Ferrari” of churro machines? Please elaborate. How has this helped your business?
Hong Kong F&B is a cutthroat industry, and there’s no dedicated shop for churros other than us. People in this city know what’s good and want only the best. You can’t have a great product if you can’t get the basics right. I’ve opened enough restaurants in my life to know that you can save costs at first, but you’d just end up paying them in the future. So, we met (virtually) with artisanal churro machine makers in Spain whom we should actually credit for the phrase: “The Ferrari of Churro Machines”. After that, we were sold. How could you not be?
The machine has been incredible! It’s a very precise piece of equipment that helps in many ways from keeping the oil at a constant high temperature which leads to the dough being in the fryer for less time. This ultimately makes the churro warm and crunchy with no traces of oiliness.
What are the future plans for Twist & Buckle? After your second location, now being available for delivery, what’s next?
We want to become Hong Kong’s favourite dessert shop, and simply be recognised for loving what we do, and being the best at it. Of course, expansion is on the horizon too. We are constantly looking at new locations and we aim to open two more within the next 12 months and try to keep doubling in size every year.
How did you meet your wife?
It’s Shakespearean in a way. Barbara and I used to work in the same hotel but in restaurants that were on two sides of a big, open terrace. I was a bartender and she was a hostess. Sometimes, we would set up the terrace cushions, cutlery, etc. of both our restaurants at the same time. She had this shiny gold jacket, and when the sun hit her it made it impossible not to look at her. Eventually, she was transferred to the restaurant I worked at, as my supervisor. I didn’t have the best reputation because of my bad temper at the time, but I was able to earn her respect. I loved that she saw the best side of me from day one. From thereon, we went out a few times after work and then life took us across the world. We’ve lived in Argentina, then had a brief stint in Dubai and now we’re here in Hong Kong.
What does Barbara do? Is she involved with Twist & Buckle?
She works in F&B too. However, it’s been more on-and-off recently as she took the time off to look after Mia and Penny. With Penny (our second one), I wanted to be the one to take time off but we realised that a prolonged paternity leave could make it difficult for me to get back into the workplace. Professionally, and in many other ways, she’s way better than I – yet the market thought otherwise. So, I kept working and she looked after Penny full time. I’m ever so grateful to her!
I try to switch off when I get home. She loves our churros but we try to keep the home environment work-free!
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How have you divided parenting roles? Who is the good cop and who is the bad cop?
I find it hard to be the bad cop because I have two girls, and I have a massive soft spot for them. I tend to love the more outdoorsy and extreme activities, like pillow fights or trampoline backflips, while Barby is great at keeping a calm environment and has the girls engaged in more mindful activities. You need both!
Are you a family of foodies? Do you prefer cooking or eating out?
I love both. My Sunday pancakes are my daughters’ favourite. I also really enjoy a good food outing – ramen and dim sum are the two family favourites.
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COVID has impacted families in many ways. Has it affected yours?
Absolutely. Our biggest concern (and seemingly for many other parents as well) is the social skills and interaction that so many kids have missed out on over the last two years. It’s an important part of their development, so we had to make sure they were able to develop this through other ways.
What prompted the decision to set up Twist & Buckle right in the middle of a crisis?
In regards to Twist & Buckle, the fact that it was a difficult time made us even more determined.
“We became more passionate about bringing some joy and happiness into the city. So, we did it in the only way we know how: through food we love.”
How similar or different are your children? Whom do they take after – you or your wife?
Wow, as different as night and day! Mia the older one is very understanding and self-conscious. We are always trying to encourage her to ignore others’ opinions. Penny, on the other hand, is cheeky and naughty. You can say “No!” to her firmly and she still won’t hesitate to do it while looking you straight in the eye! Mia has my eyes, nose and mouth while Penny looks a lot like Mum. But personality-wise, it’s the other way round.
What do you most enjoy about living in Hong Kong? Do you like bringing up your kids here?
I’ve always highly valued language and being exposed to other cultures.
“Hong Kong has both my kids learning Canto, English, and we speak Spanish at home. It’s definitely an international hub which will help expose them to many different cultures.”
They’ll become global citizens, which I appreciate.
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Which achievements are you most proud of?
I learned very quickly that you are as good as your team. Being able to mentor and train many people is something that makes me really proud.
Personally, I’m extremely happy that my little ones are healthy and happy. And of course that my wife still stands me!
What do you enjoy most about being a father? And what is the most challenging aspect?
I love reading books to them and squeezing them in my arms. I love being able to share things I would’ve loved to know when I was younger. I love how amazingly fresh and curious they are and being able to bring out my inner child with them.
The most challenging bit is probably that there’s not enough time in the day! With two jobs, it’s hard to spend a lot of time with them. So, I always make sure that the time we spend together is fully dedicated to them.
After a long day, what’s your favourite way to unwind?
Enjoying a book or Netflix, with a cheese platter, wine and my wife.
Where do you like to go for a date night with your wife?
We don’t go on a lot of dates but when we find time to do one, we just want to go phoneless and kid-less for a couple of hours.
What would be your three top tips for anyone looking to set up a business, particularly in F&B in Hong Kong?
I’m still learning so if anyone has tips, please do share! But from my experience, I would say:
- Location is more important than the concept.
- Take care of your team and they’ll take care of the guests.
- Lastly, always lead by example.
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All images courtesy of the talented John McGrane. Follow his work on Instagram here and Facebook here.