The owner of the Avocado Group and President of R&C NSW explains the benefits of thinking outside the box that’s your business
When I finished school I had the opportunity to do a Bachelor of Commerce or a Catering Management course. My mother said ‘Darling, cooking’s wonderful, go do that’. I could have been a stockbroker with a flash car as opposed to sweating in a hot kitchen on a Saturday night.
I was a commercial chef for 20 years. A highlight was working at the International Sports Club on Park Lane in London. It was a private club. The membership fees were astronomical. Money was no object and there was no menu. On a busy night there’d be 30 people in the restaurant and 15 chefs in the kitchen.
I came back from Europe and opened a restaurant with my wife, also a chef. As a chef the most difficult thing was the focus no longer centred on the kitchen and yourself—there are things called ‘customers’ and you have to think about them. Then you have to learn to run a profitable business, pay people and understand the intricacies of the IR laws.
There are two sorts of people in the world. Creative, warm fuzzy people, who every now and then need to be earthed. Then there are others who are very mathematical and hard-edged. To run a successful business you need both. I was a mathematical person who fell into the creative side.
My restaurant only traded at night. During the day the maitre’d had a business on the side doing catering. When I sold the business he asked me to help out for a few weeks. I stayed seven years. Then 16 years ago I set up the Avocado Group. What I love about catering is, it’s different every day. There’s so much more to it than cooking. You have to think about what stove you’ll need in this venue, what chairs, what tables, what decorations. I’ve created hundreds of menus. In a restaurant you’re in a box that seats 40 people. With catering on one day I’m feeding 1200 people then the next day I’m doing a job for six.
“I did everything—payroll, went out on every job, went to the markets, liaised with clients. In the fifth year the business had grown to the point where I had to step back.” Ian Martin, Owner, Avocado Group and President, R&C NSW
Catering requires very direct marketing. It’s knowing your market and having a close relationship with clients.
It’s mostly word of mouth: create the buzz and business will follow.
Every opportunity is not a good opportunity. People were coming to me with new ventures and opportunities because my business was growing and gaining a profile. But it leads to a lack of control. I was in the catering business yet I was doing coffee shops and restaurants. It’s a different skill set and, more importantly, a different head space. One day I got rid of all of them and went back to being a caterer.
There also comes a time in your business when you have to step away and that’s when you find out if you’re going to be in the industry for a long time. In the first four years of this business I did everything—payroll, went out on every job, went to the markets, liaised with clients. In the fifth year the business had grown to the point where I had to step back, I couldn’t do it all. That was the hardest year. I had to teach people what was in my head and put systems in place.
In the last ten years there has been substantial change in the corporate catering market. The barriers to enter this market are very low and as a consequence there are many new entrants every year. People set up in their home kitchen and pay cash wages. We can’t compete and continue to meet our statutory requirements.
The lines between caterers, restaurants, coffee shops, registered clubs and venues have become blurred and we are now all competing in the same market. Ten years ago restaurants would not have shut their doors on a Saturday night for an event.
IR is still the big issue facing the industry. I still don’t believe governments understand our industry.