How the 2016 Café of the Year earned the holy grail of the hospitality business: a loyal following. By Alex Gilly
In a city where tourism is the biggest industry by a country mile, it seems counterintuitive to cater to the locals. Yet that is exactly what the Restaurant & Catering Association’s Café of the Year has done. “We’ve got a pretty sizeable bar, and we’ve had people coming in there for over 20 years,” says Neil Fisher, half of the husband-and-wife team that owns and runs Domani’s on the Gold Coast’s Main Beach. “Everybody knows each other. There might be 40 people in the bar on any given night, and, honestly, everyone there knows each other by name. They’re friends. It’s a really good place to be. It’s got a good vibe, a good atmosphere. People are drinking and eating tapas with their mates.”
The Gold Coast is a tourist town, and restaurants come and go with almost dispiriting regularity. Which makes it all the more impressive that Domani’s draws an established band of regulars.
Impressive, but no accident: Neil and his wife, Kerri, have worked hard to weave Domani’s into the fabric of the city. It all started in the late ‘80s when Neil, then regional manager for a glass manufacturer, moved down from Brisbane to sell windows to the construction companies erecting high-rises along the Gold Coast. He started dropping into a local restaurant after work for a drink and a meal.
“There was a lady there called Margie, who used to serve me,” he recalls. “When I bought the place, I kept her on. She worked for us until she retired at 60 years old. Another 20 years.”
“Twenty-one,” corrects Kerri. Neil nods. “Back then, I knew nothing about restaurants,” he says, “but when the owner put the restaurant up for sale, I thought was a good idea, so I bought it. I did both jobs for a couple of years, working the restaurant at nights and on weekends, and my normal job with the glass company during the week.”
Know your strengths
Despite the gruelling schedule, he managed to squeeze in some socialising, including a barbeque one Sunday at a friend’s place in Brisbane, where he met a young hairdresser recently returned from England. They started dating.
“I was busy getting my own salon going in Brisbane,” says Kerri, “so we started commuting to see
After a couple of years, the restaurant started paying enough for Neil to quit his day job. Kerri sold her salon and moved down to the Gold Coast to be with him. In October 1996, they got married.
Part of the reason the two work so well together, personally and professionally, is because they each know their strengths and weaknesses.
“I’m good with numbers,” says Neil. “From my time in the glass industry, I knew gross profits and all that sort of thing. When I bought the restaurant, I worked out what sort of GP you needed in the food industry, as well as wage costs. And I made sure I always kept a handle on them.”
While Neil focused on managing the finances and marketing side of things, Kerri played to her strength, which is people. She manages the staff of 30.
“I love people,” she says. “I’m always trying to see the restaurant from the customer’s point of view. I think you can really learn to read people. That’s one thing I say to the staff. Really watch people. Watch whether a customer is looking for something, if they want something. A lot of young people can’t gauge body language. I think that, as an older person, you can actually read people better. I don’t know whether it’s my hairdressing background where you’re in people’s zones a bit more, but I really feel I can read people.”
“Kerri’s very fussy,” says Neil. “She never stops cleaning. When the staff see her working, they realise, ‘We haven’t got a lazy boss here. We’d better make sure we’re keeping up’.”
Both Neil and Kerri believe in investing in good staff. “I always tried to get really good chefs,” says Neil. “I pay them a little bit more, put them on incentives, but it’s worth it.”
“They’ve always stayed,” says Kerri.
Same with the front-of-house staff. When Margie retired after 20 years of service, Kerri and Neil sent her to Hamilton Island for a week. “We value our long-term staff because they know what they’re doing, there’s no retraining, and the customers know them,” says Neil.
Another way that the Fishers keep their staff is by making sure they’re communicating clearly. “We have regularly meetings,” says Neil. “We take minutes and have everyone sign off on them, so everybody’s on the same page.”
The long view
Kerri and Neil’s three-pronged strategy—stay customer-focused, think long-term, hire good people—has helped them weather the various storms that have struck the Gold Coast over the past three decades. For instance, the street on which Domani’s is located, Tedder Avenue, recently went through a downturn due to the GFC, exorbitant rents and the Gold Coast’s newly-built light rail system, which had the unintended effect of drawing foot traffic away from the Main Beach hotspot.
“A lot of decent operators went under or walked away and we ended up with a lot of empty shops, so it became a bit of a ghost town for a while,” says Neil. “We survived because of our experience. But there were people coming in from outside the industry and paying these ridiculous, excessive rents, and sometimes they’d fail within two months. And it was terrible to watch these people come in, put in all their hard-earned cash, and then, two or three or six months down the track, they’d roll.”
Neil and Kerri never rest on their laurels. They’re always thinking up ways to keep customers happy—
“The Gold Coast is very competitive. Over the last eight or so years, with the GFC and all that, people are very price conscious. They want bang for their buck,” says Neil. “You have to be on your game to get them in the door. I remember one day, about 10 years ago, I thought, ‘We need a bit of new direction.’ So I sat down and wrote a menu and I took it to the head chef and I said, ‘This is what I want you to do.’ Now, you don’t usually do to that chefs. And he blew up and carried on. And I said, ‘Look, do me a favour. Give it a go for a month. And if it doesn’t work, get rid of it, and do your thing’. Well, that was the menu we won our first Restaurant & Catering award [for Best Alfresco Restaurant, Queensland] for.”
Now that Domani’s has been voted best café in the nation by the judges of the Restaurant & Catering Association, how do they feel?
Both Neil and Kerri smile.
“We’re very happy,” says Neil.
“So are the crew!” adds Kerri.
“They’re stoked. They’re proud of themselves,” says Neil.
It’s a fine prize to win. And it’s especially lovely to win it on your 20th wedding anniversary. Congratulations on both fronts, Kerri and Neil.