More Aussie restaurateurs than ever are looking overseas for new markets. Angela Tufvesson looks at what’s involved in taking local brands to foreign lands.
Nolan Hirte reckons the United States is ready for Aussie coffee. The man behind Melbourne cafés Proud Mary, Aunty Peg’s and Stagger Lee’s is set to open a Portland branch of Proud Mary in May.
“In the US there really isn’t a café business model the same as we have in Australia. It’s much more of a coffee shop that doesn’t offer breakfast, lunch or sit-down service,” says Hirte. “We saw an opportunity to bring the Australian model to the States.”
Eventually, he hopes to open a second café in America’s other hipster haven—Austin, Texas—
and distribute wholesale coffee to cafés around the country in much the same way as Proud Mary does back home.
Hirte’s business plan isn’t unique. In fact, a growing number of Australian restaurateurs are opening overseas branches to grow brand recognition and capitalise on an increasingly mobile customer base. Here’s what you need to know about going global.
A point of difference
Veteran restaurateur Luke Mangan took his Salt franchise from Sydney to Tokyo in 2006 and is now showcasing Australian wine and produce to diners in Singapore and Indonesia. He is also set to open two additional restaurants in the Japanese capital.
Mangan says the key to overseas success is offering local diners an experience they can’t enjoy elsewhere in the city. “If we’re going to do something overseas, it needs to be different from what everyone else is doing—what’s our point of difference?” he explains. “That’s what I say to myself every time I open a restaurant. Our point of difference in Asia is great Australian produce and great Australian wine. However, we do use local produce on the ground as well; we’re not flying everything in.”
Likewise, Jonathan Barthelmess and business partner Sam Christie opened a Tokyo branch of Sydney favourite, The Apollo, in the city’s swanky Ginza district in April last year. Barthelmess says offering Greek food to the food-loving masses of one of the world’s largest cities has so far proved successful.
“The challenges have been enormous and much greater than I thought. Some of the biggest challenges have been getting our visas and getting approved as a business.”—Nolan Hirte, café owner
“The population is massive and there’s a huge dining culture—everyone eats out all the time in Tokyo,” he says. “It’s probably one of the greatest cities in the world and we wanted to be a part of it.”
Rising to the challenge
Of course, setting up a restaurant overseas isn’t as easy as opening another Australian branch. Restaurateurs will need to negotiate everything from language barriers and permits to visas and sourcing produce that may not be easily available on foreign shores.
Hirte relocated to the US to oversee the new café and says he had to change the structure of his company in order to open in Portland.
“The challenges have been enormous and much greater than I thought,” he says. “Some of the biggest challenges have been getting our visas and getting approved as a business. That required us to do a whole company restructure so we’re not getting taxed in both places. It’s now a US company with a branch in Australia.”
Dealing with red tape has also proved frustrating. “It’s harder to get access to finance and things like leasing a car and getting a phone because in America you need at least two years of history, a social security number and a credit rating. It doesn’t matter how well you perform in other countries, you start again when you move to another country.”
For Barthelmess, sourcing Greek staples like dairy products and pita bread in rice-loving Japan is tricky. He says support from the Australian and Greek embassies helps the restaurant to import Mediterranean produce.
Plus, English isn’t widely spoken in Japan and there are large cultural divides, so support from local business partners is a must.
“We found some great people to partner up with who we trust,” says Barthelmess. “We have an operations team over there who run the restaurant day-to-day. All the core people were trained in Australia for three months before we opened so everyone has a really good understanding of how The Apollo works.
“The world is becoming a smaller place and people are more aware of international brands than they were 10 years ago. Everyone is just more global now and everything is more accessible.”—Luke Mangan, Salt franchise
“The language and the culture is very different and it’s something we had to learn to manage. We always have translators with us because it would be impossible to get your point across properly otherwise.”
Mangan agrees that partnering with locals can smooth language and cultural differences and help restaurateurs navigate bureaucracy. “That’s an important bit of advice if anyone is keen to go overseas: partner with a local person who can help do all that,” he says. “That takes a lot of the pressure off, then you can concentrate on the product to deliver.”
What’s to gain
Aside from the ego-building satisfaction of successfully opening a restaurant in a foreign land and the potentially lucrative financial benefits that await those who do it right, there can be flow-on effects locally.
“For us, it gives us brand exposure and brand presence,” says Mangan. “It’s about getting the brand out there and showcasing Australia. We cross promote big time, so if you get a bill in any of our restaurants you’ll get a business card that promotes all of our businesses around the world.”
Diners are increasingly developing an appetite for global restaurant brands—like Taiwanese favourite Din Tai Fung and Jason Atherton’s modern British empire—which Barthelmess says helps to strengthen the brands back home.
“The world is becoming a smaller place and people are more aware of international brands than they were 10 years ago,” he says. “Everyone is just more global now and everything is more accessible.
“It’s a really good process to go through when you’re creating the same brand again because it makes you question everything you did, why you did it and how you can improve it. We learned a lot from that process, which makes The Apollo Sydney even better as well.”