The owner of the Ripples group of restaurants on how much to extend yourself, the importance of real estate, and alternatives to growth
After I matriculated high school in 1980 I looked to get a trainee manager position. I had no experience. I remember putting on a jacket, shirt and tie and walking along the footpath, knocking on doors. I went to the Centerpoint Tavern and the manager saw me. He called me back when he needed a pot scrubber. But he said ‘bring old clothes son’. I ended up managing that place four years later.
In the early years I looked at each manager I worked with, trying to learn from the good and bad and thinking how I’d do it if I were ever in that position.
In 1986 I bought a small takeaway in Taylor Square. We did a small renovation and had it for a year. Just to get into business and work through all the obstacles day-to-day was a huge experience—making sure we had enough money to pay the rent, expenses and staff. As a youngster, I wasn’t backed by anyone. I learnt that to grow you have to extend yourself, but not
After that I went to work at the Harbourwatch Pier One. The opportunity came for me to be the manager. It was very big—out of my league. Early on the owner Nick Stergis and I negotiated to become partners. I owe him quite a bit. I was there every day. It had millions worth of debt. But it was natural for me—I wanted to challenge myself. I don’t have any business partners now, but I’ve had a couple. To work well together you have to know how to give and take. As long as there’s honesty and you both have to have humility and respect it will work.
Sydney’s blessed with a magnificent harbour and fabulous weather. Even the winters are mild. It leads to alfresco dining. I wanted to take advantage of the natural beauty. My business model aims for those sites. I don’t necessarily go for high-density traffic. I look where real estate is a little bit cheaper, so costs can be a bit lower. Then you back yourself with a better product. We don’t rely on the tourists, we need local trade.
I sold Harbourwatch in 1999 and established Aqua Dining in 2000. In 2001 we opened Ripples at Milson’s Point, in 2007 Ripples at Chowder Bay, Ripples at Sydney Wharf early in 2009, and late last year, Ripples at Whale Beach.
“When you enter into a lease for a new site for 10 years, 15 years, you have to allow for economic booms and turndowns in the business model” Bill Drakopoulos
Ripples at the Wharf is a strong development with strong design. The architect we used for that we use for all of our sites. But the design is dictated by the location itself—Ripples at Whale Beach looks very beachy, very laid-back, very homely.
We have the buying power and the economies of scale of a large group, but each manger is autonomous to the venue. And I don’t want it to be a fast food outlet. If I wanted that I wouldn’t attract quality chefs or quality staff. Each chef creates their own menu – I don’t want robots all creating the same dish. There are a couple of constraints they have, but each site has a different menu and cuisine influence based on what we think suits the site. You have to do your planning before when sizing up a business. You have to have a business model and have to have all those measures in place. But when the doors open, you serve your guests. If a guest feels you’re purely there to make money they’ll feel it’s not hospitable.
There are ebbs and flows in any business. You have to put aside money in a cycle week, month, quarter, year and lease term. You’ll have busy and quiet sessions. When you enter into a lease for a new site for 10 years, 15 years, you have to allow for economic booms and turndowns in the business model.
The labour force also has to be elastic. In our places it is much quieter in winter than summer. We have to be able to have less people there. Not every day will be a rosy day.
I get offers regularly and I do look at them. But we don’t need to grow. Our business model is not based on us growing, it’s about looking after what we’ve got.