The owner of Blue Skies Dining on the joy of moving mid-market, the pain of importing food, and the tax that’s strangling the industry
At 21, I had my own business in commercial art and sign-writing. But my girlfriend’s, now wife’s, father owned a few big hotels in Hobart so I started helping out. After managing two pubs over four years we moved to northern Tasmania in 1977. We bought an old house and converted it into a restaurant called Ruby’s. We’d go out and learn as much as we could about the industry. We’d fly from Devonport to Melbourne and eat out there. We went to Fanny’s there and it blew me away completely. We moved back to Hobart so we could do something special. And our kids were growing up and in Devonport there were no universities.
We opened Dear Friends in 1985, partly based on Fanny’s restaurant. The concept was exactly what I wanted. It was in a heritage building we’d bought and renovated. It was very much a fine-dining restaurant. The restaurant was on the first floor and down below we put a wine cellar and bar because I’d become a bit of a wine fanatic.
I did front-of-house, but I got to the point where some of the chefs didn’t see how the fashions in food were changing. So I put myself into the kitchen. It was the days of nouvelle cuisine. The presentation of food on the plate—with my background in commercial art I recognised this—was like a picture with a white frame around it. Food was highly styled, plates were bigger, and there were lovely sauces and jus. We won a lot of awards.
When they brought in the Fringe Benefit Tax (FBT) it was a big killer, not just for us, but in Melbourne and Sydney too. Then interest rates went through the roof in the late ’80s and the pilots’ strike happened. I’d moved into the convention and catering side by then, and we were looking for other ways to utilise the business and facilities. When I won the contract to do catering for the World Expo in Spain I knew I couldn’t do two things. So I sold the restaurant.
The Expo contract came through at 4pm on Christmas Eve. We only had a few weeks to get everything up and going before flying to Spain. We moved over four weeks before it opened and we lived there—families, chefs and waiters—for six months. We only sold Australian food and wines, so I learnt a lot about importing into another country. One time we had a delivery of Boags and Cascade beer and I couldn’t get it out of Customs because it didn’t have the percentage alcohol content on it, so we had to sit there and write out 1000 stickers to stick on each bottle.
When I came back to Tasmania I worked for Tassal for three years, developing and promoting salmon. It was the first time I’d worked for anyone else. I learnt a lot from working for a big company. I learnt how to do marketing, structural management and dealing with problems.
“I’d go out to certain restaurants and see the captains of industry just eating a hamburger in a restaurant. I thought ‘that’s the market we need to be in’.” Geoff Copping
The business I have at the moment is on the Pier. I was approached to develop something on the site as the initial businesses hadn’t gone well. They were paying way too much rent. I renegotiated when I took over.
Over the years I worked with Tassal, I’d go out to certain restaurants and see the captains of industry just eating a hamburger. I thought ‘that’s the market we need to be in’. I opened Blue Skies Dining to meet the middle market. Everything is still made the same way, but we serve fish and chips as well. In Dear Friends I served a maximum of 1600 in a year. Now I do 85,000 in a year. It’s not about what you want. It’s what the market wants.
The market’s changed. In the early days people going out would have pre-dinner drinks, an entrée, sorbet between courses, and so on. Today most people going out have a main and a bottle of wine.
I’ve sat on the Tasmanian Restaurant Association since 1985, apart from my three years with Tassal. The thing that frustrates us in Tasmania is we’re all in small business and restaurants are one of the biggest employers of people in Australia. If we got rid of the Fringe Benefit Tax and instead had our model of deductible dining our industry would grow 10 to 15 per cent. And that would also give us stability in the winter months and have opportunities for tourism.