The Lifetime Achiever and owner of Brisbane’s Il Centro on the importance of staff and knowing your market
I’ve got Greek origins. The family has been here nearly 100 years and owned cafes from 1920 to the 1960s in Sydney and Newcastle. Whether you liked it or not, you worked in the shop after school. It felt like winning the Gold lotto when my father sold the shop.
I studied accountancy in Sydney and went to work for British Tobacco as a young accountant trainee in 1970. But I was still waiting tables while I studied. Then I married a girl whose father, Michael Karlos, pioneered licensed restaurants in Queensland. He owned the Camelia in Queen Street. Prior to that there was only BYO. A couple of years after we married he asked me if I would be interested in buying the restaurant with another son-in-law. I weighed up my future in either profession. I bought my first restaurant. Shortly after that I bought the Cubana from him as well.
The Camelia was fine-dining, and we turned the 180-seater Cubana Café into a coffee shop/café that was one of the only ones open in the city at night. We were working 18 hours a day. After I sold the Camelia and the Cubana my wife Marcia encouraged me to open a modern Italian bistro. We spent two years researching to get it right, travelling to Italy and France. We opened Il Centro in 1992. We’ve been running it ever since.
We’re on the Brisbane River facing the Story Bridge. Twenty years ago no-one wanted to be on the river. They said I was crazy. But there are 180,000 people around here—all the corporates. I thought the restaurant was so close to such a big number of people, it would succeed. This centre was designed for retail and a couple of restaurants. Our space was empty for three years, so we got a good deal. Now the River is the focal point of Brisbane.
The original planning was to cater to middle management. But it turned out a lot of the top tier were interested as well. We’re not fine dining, but somewhere between a bistro and fine dining.
“I don’t do discounts or happy hour. I think the best promotion is acknowledging the people who come in, then they become your promoters.”
We’re now on our fourth chef in 20 years and she was the sous chef before that. It’s all about the right people. Our manager has been here 13 years, our sommelier for nine years. They’re part of the family. They give people attention that’s friendly and professional.
We don’t often change staff, but we’ll go through five waiters to get a good one. We’re flexible with hours and we’re big enough to accommodate staff—every third weekend off, that sort of thing. My wife plays a big role. She used to be full time but you have to strike a balance. That’s why I insist staff have two straight days off a week. No-one works more than 40-to-45 hours, so no-one comes into work gloomy.
To retain staff you’ve got to show them a lot of respect. I’m prepared to do anything—I mop, I clear tables. They do what I do. The main thing I believe is if you’re not hands-on, it’s not going to work. An owner’s got to be around—even with great staff. I’m here every day, lunch hour in particular. Food is one thing but service is paramount. This business is all about communication. I can talk about the racehorses, golf, tennis, I know a bit about everything. You talk to customers—it’s very important.
Recently we refurbished. We had to redo the kitchen so we closed for five days and put in new furniture—all Italian. The menu presentation changed. You’ve got to keep up to date. When people come in they want to see you’re doing something.
I’m the longest member of the restaurant association here. I’m still involved. I just got awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award. It was touching. I was 25 when I first went onto the committee.
I’m not interested in opening any more restaurants. I’m happy to have this. But we might put in a champagne bar.
I don’t do discounts or happy hour. I think the best
promotion is acknowledging the people who come in, then they become your promoters. People come in and they have their likes and dislikes, we just do it. If it can be, it will be done.