The lawyer, proprietor of Café San Marco and Immediate Past President of R&CA reveals what he’s learnt from 17 years in the business.
In my family everyone enjoys food and wine. I was always attracted to that. My wife and I went to cooking classes. As a lawyer, I started to draw a large restaurant clientele base.
One client had a restaurant and wanted to open another. It was an exceptional location. He offered me a silent partnership, which appealed to me. But by the time the fit-out was completed, he’d run out of money. All of a sudden I had a restaurant, and in June 1992 Café San Marco opened.
It was in the Southbank Parkland, which was unique. The government had resumed the land for Expo and a big parcel was cleared and developed. The first day of opening was massive. The lines were as long as the eye could see. It was a big restaurant too—it seated 300-plus people. You really had to deal with volume.
The area of law I focus on is litigation, so I’m quite often in court. It’s very confronting. You deal with people’s problems on a daily basis. Owning a restaurant, running a restaurant, is my escape from the world.
Being in a kitchen at peak service is more stressful than being before any judge. Seeing a whole team come together each night is amazing.
I was approached to join the Restaurant & Catering Association because of my legal background. I became very involved in subcommittees, and within a short time I was State President, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I learnt a lot. You’re privy to a lot of reports.
The association is really valuable to any operator. It provides the assistance you need in this sort of business and lots of information on things like health regulations and licensing. It made my business operations so much easier.
When I had another restaurant at Southbank, New York Latin—which experienced some difficulties—my wife was there every night looking after tables. New York Latin seated 450, so it was big. But eventually we had to close. There I learnt you need to be careful that you understand the conditions well when you go into business. I knew there was going to be some serious construction work done on Southbank. I had no idea it would last three years. A lot of restaurants on the Parklands suffered and some closed. I acted for most of them.
As a practising solicitor I realise the financial strain and hardship a plaintiff is facing. I tell them a bad compromise is better than a good lawsuit—litigation is expensive.
Restaurants in the main are not a highly rewarding business. They make enough to look after a family: 94 per cent of them turn over less than half a million dollars. But restaurateurs are really hardworking individuals who make a difference in our society. Everyone celebrates life events at restaurants.
Restaurants are discretionary spends. One thing you will save on is eating out. As operators we need to be more diverse—look at takeaway or look at outside catering operations. You have to look at opportunities out there.
I’ve learnt three important things about owning and operating a restaurant: you have to have an organisation structure that ensures you get simple and quick reports on the business on a daily basis; you have to have a commitment to customers and that means keeping an eye on menu, pricing, and amenity; and you have to have a commitment to your staff. Give them a sense of ownership so they have pride in the establishment.
I love this industry and the people in it—they really are risk-takers. Owning a restaurant is a real juggling act. You have to be multi-skilled, not just in meeting budgets, but staff issues, health regulations, equipment and maintenance, and customer satisfaction. I don’t think any industry has as much red tape and government involvement as we do. The people who succeed are very clever people.