Mother and daughter Shirley Struk and Deanne Bond could be considered eastern Sydney’s accidental restaurateurs. However, persistence, patience and pragmatism have seen this hard-working duo turn a derelict beachfront building into an award-winning eatery, popular with tourists and locals alike. Tracey Porter reports
A casual mid-morning stroll turned Shirley Struk’s plans for early retirement on their ear.
The former accountant’s year-long sabbatical from a high-profile banking job to nurse her ailing parents was drawing to a close and Struk was looking forward to handing in her notice to wile away her days treading the sand and lunching with friends.
But then she saw it. “It was a dilapidated building at the heart of the Maroubra Promenade [in Sydney’s eastern suburbs] and I knew instinctively it would make a great restaurant,” says Struk. Positioned across one level, it was easily accessible while the space had the picturesque Arthur Byrne Reserve on one side and an unobstructed view of the beautiful eastern seaboard on the other.
Making a mental note to ask her husband to contact Randwick Council to enquire about the structure, she continued on her way.
Six months later, the idea was still percolating when the then 50-year-old stumbled upon a notice in the paper, seeking tenders for the very same space. Having roped in daughter Deanne Bond who had recently returned to the area from a stint operating a guesthouse-cum-winery in Mudgee, the pair put in a joint bid but was surprised as any when announced the winner.
“I did it for Deanne,” says Struk. “I thought, ‘She needs a job so let’s do this’. At the same time Deanne argues that she just ‘went along with’ her mum’s crazy idea. I didn’t think we’d get it, we’d never done anything like this before.”
In 2000, they opened the doors to the casual dining venue they christened Pavilion Cafe. Struk and Bond were well aware of its value—it’s one of the few cafes in Sydney that occupies absolute beachfront space. In the early stages, they designed the sit-down component of the eatery with little shelter, leaving it largely to the mercy of the elements.
Demand for a takeaway component was sated via the addition of a kiosk at the back of the restaurant to provide coffees and light refreshments to the passing trade.
Before long, the pair bought big plastic windbreaks to combat the full effects of the area’s frequent gusts while portable tables and chairs were strategically positioned each morning to capture the glint of the early morning sunshine and the might of the renowned Maroubra surf.
Just months after opening, the cafe was hit by the after-effects of a near cyclonic storm that had made its way from Wollongong, some 100 kilometres to the south. Rubbish bins were up-ended and the cafe’s tables and chairs were found up to 500 metres away. The council was forced to bring in bulldozers to move the thousands of cubic metres of sand that had found their way along the raised promenade platform and settled throughout the venue.
This hastened an idea the two women had been considering to future-proof the venue. When their re-tender for the space in 2005 was again successful, the pair took the opportunity to undertake a major renovation.
The venue now occupies around 240 square metres of dining and kitchen space. Struk and Bond added a roof, commissioned bespoke fold-back glass doors to make the space fully enclosed, smartened up its interior and rebirthed it as the Pavilion Beachfront restaurant.
The decision to renovate and rebrand has proved a popular one among Pavilion patrons with repeat business now accounting for around 70 per cent of the restaurant’s turnover. Such is the intimacy between venue and clientele, Struk says it’s now become like a little village where “we know everyone by their coffees, not necessarily their names”.
Open every day of the year except for Christmas and Melbourne Cup day, the restaurant averages around 400 covers for breakfast and lunch on weekends and a further 100 or so a day during the quieter weekdays.
Struk says the glass frontage allows them to bring the outside indoors although on stormy days they prefer to shelter inside, confident in the knowledge the glass doors are able to withstand wind gusts of up to 140 kilometres per hour.
“We get the very best and worst of Mother Nature,” says Struk. “We see dolphins and whales frolicking in the sunshine when the water is clear. But then the southerlies come in here, and they are very strong. The only beach that cyclone hit that day was Maroubra. Half-a-million dollars later we enclosed it and stopped the wind.”
At the same time as renewing their existing lease, the duo also had the foresight to amend their licensing conditions in favour of a Primary Service liquor licence that allows the licensee to serve alcohol to patrons without the requirement to purchase food.
While Struk and Bond have opted not to advertise this publicly for fear of turning their beloved restaurant from a destination dining facility into a destination watering hole, Struk says the move was necessary to appease the restaurant’s large number of European tourists who frequently felt aggrieved when told of the limitations governing their previous licence.
Evening functions are now tailored to suit any requirement, whether it’s a corporate event or a family birthday. The extended licensing conditions also proved helpful when the Pavilion trialled evening dining last November. The move proved so popular, it’s likely to be repeated during the following summer months.
Calling the restaurant home for the past five years, head chef Fransisco ‘Pancho’ Balut has settled on a laid-back menu brimming with fresh local produce as befits the casual seaside venue.
The menu is changed at least three—but usually four—times a year. While the ultimate decision rests with Balut and Struk, sous chefs also have a chance to have input in the hope it will help keep boredom at bay.
Further enticing punters through the door is the Pavilion’s mid-level price points, which range from $10 (for a sour dough bruchetta with chorizo, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, onions and ricotta) to around $25 for the more lavish lunch dishes. Breakfasts average around $15 per plate.
Judges too have been quick to realise the restaurant’s appeal with the business on the receiving end of several accolades, the latest of which was being awarded the Best Breakfast Restaurant in the 2014 Savour Australia Restaurant & Catering HOSTPLUS Awards for Excellence.
While seasonal variations have their place, Struk says the high level of repeat custom means there are some menu staples that cannot be forsaken. These include grilled fish and chips and crispy skinned Atlantic salmon which comes in various guises throughout the year but at present arrives on a bed of orange and beetroot salad with pine nuts, feta and a lemon vinaigrette.
Heavily reliant on local producers for its seafood, eggs and fruit and vegetables, Struk says most suppliers have been with the restaurant since it first opened its doors 15 years ago.
The beverage list too relies heavily on domestic wine producers, says Struk who for nearly 60 years called the seaside settlement home.
“We keep our wine list quite varied and we like to keep our prices reasonable. We’re at Maroubra; we’re not at Double Bay. We charge $105 for our Veuve Clicquot champagne which is a non-vintage variety but still there’s not much mark-up on that. Most of our wine list is priced in the mid-$30 range. The bulk of these are Australian wines. If New Zealand didn’t have such good sauvignon blancs I wouldn’t have any from there either.”
With her head for figures, Struk spent the early days helping Bond work the floors of the restaurant before heading home in the evening to meet with suppliers, settle accounts and liaise with regulatory bodies. These days she leaves Bond and the Pavilion’s 12 front-of-house staff to manage the day-to-day operation of the restaurant while she takes charge of the administration side of the business, including payroll, HR and marketing.
Struk considers staff resourcing among the least taxing aspects of her job due largely to the business’s success in attracting and retaining good staff. She credits good communication as key and argues involving staff in decision-making also helps achieve buy-in.
One day, says Struk, she’d like to add an upstairs component to the building to allow it to host conferences as well as extend its function capabilities.
But until that day, she must be content with the fact that Pavilion’s clientele continues to enjoy the high standard of service they have come to expect.
“We spend a lot of time, particularly when we get a new employee on board, training them—even down to setting up the tables,” says Struk. “When you walk in, you’ll find every table is set up exactly the same with fork and knife placement a certain distance in from the side of the table. The staff know; they’re trained in observing the little things. It’s a pet hate of mine. I cannot stand seeing empty plates left on tables. They’re cleared immediately.
“Before we set up this place, I’d go to restaurants and pick them apart. Now I’ve had to put my money where my mouth is.”