What seemed like a nice little country restaurant became a baptism of fire into the industry for Courtney Christie. She tells how she took on and turned around her business
It sounds like a recipe for disaster—take a twenty-something with no experience, let her buy a struggling restaurant from the estate of a family friend, then leave others in charge while she jets around the world doing another job. And it nearly was a disaster for South Australia’s Flying Fish Café. The thing that made the difference is Courtney Christie’s skill and determination to make it work, which has recently been recognised with her nomination as a finalist for the Telstra Australian Business Women of the Year Award.
“I’d seen the restaurant go up and down a few times, and it was struggling for a while,” says head chef Leigh Irish, who has worked at the restaurant since 2000, and who originally nominated Christie for the award. “Her boots-and-all attitude, in taking over with little experience, and being able to turn it around within twelve months, was quite amazing.”
The Flying Fish Cafe sits on the site of the old Horseshoe Bay Kiosk in Port Elliot, SA, which served many a beach-going holiday-maker from its inception in the 1960’s. It was bought and redeveloped in 1997 by winemaker Nigel Catt, who turned the aging kiosk into a popular south coast cafe with laid-back seaside dining.
In 2001 Greg Trott of Wirra Wirra Winery bought the café and extensively renovated the building to accommodate its new role as an exclusive fine dining establishment catering to local and visiting foodies. After four years, however, Trott became very ill, and passed away in 2005. Courtney and her then-partner, Jake Stephens, bought it from his estate. Her ambition, she says, was, “to work for myself, and we felt there was a real lack of good wine bars serving good food in that particular area.”
However, she adds: “The restaurant’s financial position, because of the patriarch being ill, was dangerous. I was 24 and quite naïve. I knew instinctively one of the owner-operators should be involved on a daily basis, and trusted that my partner was going to be taking up that role. Maybe I was naïve about trusting a boyfriend. But I’d recently graduated from uni and wanted to pursue my winemaking career, so we employed a manager.”
And then she left. She points out she didn’t leave completely—she returned from working in wineries to work the restaurant from Thursday night to Sundays. When her consulting work took her to Italy, Spain and Portugal for a number of short, six-to-eight-week stints, the restaurant kept drawing her back. But things there weren’t going as well there as the rest of her career.
After twelve months, she and Stephens had split up, and he and the manager they had employed were running the restaurant. Leigh Irish was having problems with suppliers by this stage: “It wasn’t a matter of the customers not coming in,” he recalls. “It was more the bills weren’t getting paid and I was struggling to buy produce.”
He didn’t really know Courtney at all at this point. “For two years she was away doing her winemaking work, so I only saw her sporadically on weekends,” he says. “I had a chef-to-boss relationship, but mainly I was dealing directly with the manager. But when the business started struggling, I started asking more questions of her.”
It was quite a surprise for her: “I came back from a wine making adventure and things were quite dangerous,” she says. “My chef knew the business well, and he pulled me aside and said something’s not right. My family had invested heavily in the restaurant, so I decided to come back for good and take a more hands-on role. Which didn’t really please everyone involved.”
“It wasn’t a matter of the customers not coming in. It was more the bills weren’t getting paid and I was struggling to buy produce.” Head chef Leigh Irish
For example, the manager she had hired decided to move on as well, freeing up the role for Courtney. “I got to know everything about the business,” she says. “I immersed myself in it. My ex-boyfriend no longer has an active interest in it.” A flick through the books revealed the serious extent of the problem she faced. “Our wages were sitting around 50 per cent, which is disastrous,” she says. “I had to renegotiate things with suppliers. I had to negotiate with the ATO, because there was a debt to the ATO. In general the restaurant had a good turnover, but just had to manage cashflow.”
At first she relied heavily on Leigh Irish because of his familiarity with the business.
“Having the experience I had, I knew quite a bit about running the place, and what had worked and what hadn’t in the past,” he says. “For a while there at the beginning she asked me a lot to find out where everything was, and how it was running at the time. She didn’t know our main suppliers, or who our handyman was—things like that, but I knew all those things. But after three or four months of getting a grounding in the place and getting to know the staff, she was on her own.”
The toughest job, at the start, was in restructuring the staff to get the wages bill down. “That ruffled a few feathers at first because there were quite a few front-of-house staff who got a free ride with the previous management,” says Irish. “They got a lot of hours when there was very little work to be done, and that’s what resulted in the huge wages costs. It ruffled feathers when she was cutting hours, but after the turn around, a few of those staff members who left have returned, and are working here now. They recognised she had to do some radical things initially to get it back on track.”
With those remaining, says Christie. “I had to give them targets, which was a good ting. The chef previously had no targets, and giving him targets and responsibilities meant it gave him something to work for. And they all started to thrive on meeting those targets. That was the main thing. I employed some secret shoppers just to see what was going on in the restaurant, which I found a really interesting business. The best thing, in the end, was to be there myself. By being there I could work out what was superfluous.”
She also worked closely with Irish to find ways they could make the kitchen run more efficiently. “We’re a beachside restaurant, so in winter we were trying to streamline as much as possible anyway, but at the same time we do try to offer more formal style in the evening,” she says. “So we looked at prep time, wages and so on to make the menu less intensive, and tried to identify ways some dishes could be prepared by someone other than the chef.”
If that seemed restrictive, both Christie and Irish knew that it wasn’t going to make a huge difference to customers, but would positively affect cashflow: “In summer we’ve got more food-savvy clientele, and more cashflow, so that’s when that can change,” says Christie. “Summer is when we show off what we can do.”
Within a year, Christie’s efforts had seen her turn the business around, boosting the cafe’s profitability by 7.5 per cent. She now has a team of 30 staff who enthusiastically strive to meet their targets.
Her efforts inspired Irish to nominate her for the Telstra award: “I was really impressed by her attitude and get-up-and-go, and her ability to communicate in a business-like way that was very professional,” he says.
Now in its 15th year, the awards recognise the achievements of women in all types of businesses, from up-and-coming young business women to corporate leaders and those working in the not-for-profit sector. The awards have recognised over 400 businesswomen since its inception in 1995.
The judges commented that finalists had been selected for representing a balance of business acumen and financial success, work-life balance, outstanding leadership and a commitment to being the best they can be.
“This year has been exceptionally challenging for Australia’s business community. South Australian businesswomen have faced these challenges with tenacity and a positive approach,” said Telstra product management group managing director and Telstra Business Women’s Awards ambassador Holly Kramer.
As part of the process, says Christie, “We had to submit short essays in answer to a lot of questions. Part of the process involved checking the financials of the business, and the progress of the business over the last five years had to be verified. From there the judges selected the finalists, and we went on to an interview panel. I didn’t win, but I was proud to be considered in the same league as these women.”
After such a baptism of fire, things have settled on a positive upward path for Christie and The Flying Fish Café. “It was the fourth birthday of us taking over last week,” she said when R&C magazine spoke to her last December. “And it’s quite a good little business now.”