With a career spanning more than half a century, Melbourne restaurateur and chef Hermann Schneider talks about the nature of competition and how to nurture your business for generations of clients to come.
“There’s a lesson every day when you’re working in the restaurant business.
“At 20 I was adventurous so I came to Melbourne from Switzerland in 1956 as part of a group of chefs cooking for the various Olympic teams.
One of my first big challenges after the Olympics was applying for a job. I didn’t know anybody. At first I worked in an army club and at Victoria Golf Club but that was all very mundane and not the type of fine cuisine I was taught.
“In Switzerland I was fortunate to work with what I would call mature chefs who fostered young people who showed promise. They encouraged me to go to the butcher to learn how to bone meats and they sent me to specialty shops serving game, seafood and the like so I could learn how to fillet fish.
“My training has been my foundation throughout my career but I was relatively junior when I got to Australia, so from there on I really had to teach myself.
“It was only when I started work at Antonio’s in South Yarra that things started to become interesting from a professional point of view. Antonio’s became one of the main really social restaurants of the time and I worked there for about two-and-a-half years, from late 1957 to 1960.
“After that I started Two Faces in the same area. During that time I felt that the great advantage on the Melbourne restaurant scene was that it had a very strong clientele base.
“You really have to work on your client base. If you have that you know your restaurant has security. You don’t want it to be full one or two days a week and overwhelmed and then looking for customers the rest of the week.
“I tried my best to build up this kind of customer loyalty. I had Two Faces from 1960 to 1978—so 28 years. I saw at least three generations of customers. There was the couple who came with their child, then that child brought his own children. That was the great advantage you had in those days.
“My wife Faye was always very much involved. We had a business partnership from the moment we married in 1964. We had an understanding. She was front of house as well as the accountant. My job was the kitchen and cellar. It was a good partnership. We respected each other’s territory and we were always, always, by each other’s side.
Together we started Roesti Bistro and Arthur’s and after that we both set about creating Delgany Country House in Portsea.
“Melbourne people love their clubs, so the restaurant benefited from that mentality. I think the key was making customers feel that it was really their restaurant. It was a home away from home.
“Looking back, one of the happiest times was when all of a sudden Two Faces progressed from being a basement restaurant to one with all sorts of glamour.
“Through all of it the main lesson I’ve learned is to nurture your business. The great danger I see these days with chefs and restaurants is that as soon as they create something successful they either want to expand or become consultants and they quickly lose control over their own business.
“By the time they realise, the damage is done permanently most of the time. People want to see you in the restaurant. I used to find that even if I was away for one day people would notice that something was missing.
“So I suppose in a certain way the success of our businesses has come purely and simply from personal service and I don’t think that has lost any relevance over the years.”