From medicine to hospitality, the co-owner of Berardo’s in Noosa reflects on an unconventional career path
I’m Italian. Need I say anything more? It goes without saying that food played a very big part in my life growing up as a child. It was the glue of my family. Every single night, we sat down at the kitchen table to eat a four-course meal that had been cooked from scratch by my mother. Absolutely no television or radio was allowed. It was a time for family discussion and togetherness. Yet, years later, I would never have dreamed that I would own my own restaurant, Berardo’s, along a stretch of palm-fringed beachfront in the tiny town of Noosa, Australia.
My second career as a restaurateur got off to an unlikely start. I was working as a medical administrator in New York when I first came to Noosa for a holiday in 1981. Years later I decided to take an early retirement. I came back to Noosa in 1999, thinking I’d just sit around and do nothing, maybe play a bit of golf. Then I saw the old Palmer’s restaurant on the beach was for sale. I took one look at Greg O’Brien, then a doctor and now my business partner, and said, ‘Let’s give it a go.’
Neither of us really had any idea of what we were getting ourselves into. But we learned quickly because we had to. It’s a tough business. The whole restaurant scene then is not what it is now: the costs being what they are; the rules and regulations; the complexities. To be honest, it was a lot easier to run a business 15 years ago than it is now. If I met anyone who was thinking of doing what Greg and I did then, I would say, “Absolutely don’t do it if you haven’t got an iron-clad business plan.” Ninety per cent of businesses fail because they are under-capitalised. You’ve got to think everything through and look at all aspects of the business. Everyone thinks of the service side of things, and you must be totally prepared for that, but they underestimate how much work is involved during off-service hours. The amount of administration and bookkeeping is astronomical.
Restaurants are very analogous to hospitals in many ways. They are complex and multi-dimensional and there are many different aspects to running them.
The fact that Greg and I were both so customer-focused got us through those early years and some tough times to follow. And, of course, we both had business experience. We understood the importance of structure and organisation. This may sound a bit odd but restaurants are very analogous to hospitals in many ways. They are complex and multi-dimensional and there are many different aspects to running them. But that’s where the similarities end. On the whole, we serve much better food in restaurants than we do in hospitals! Also, when I worked as a hospital administrator, I had a lot of support. But as a small business owner, I find, you’re often on your own. You’ve got to be everything to everyone.
It’s been a long road but I think Berardo’s has managed to stay in the game because we’ve adapted to changing economic conditions and dining trends. Small business owners have been promised an economic recovery for the past three years but, quite honestly, things are nowhere near where they used to be before the GFC. Our decision to open our more casual sister outlet, Berardo’s Bistro On The Beach, about 10 years ago was a strategic one. The demand for fine dining tends to cycle in and out. At the moment there just aren’t enough customers around to support high-end dining, which is more costly to provide in terms of staffing and product. Silver service has fallen by the way side, and so have linen tables, three-course meals and degustations. These days, people want small plates, large plates, grazing menus. The success of our bistro is testament to that.
Fortunately for us, great produce and food has never gone out of style. We’ve had some amazingly talented chefs rattle the pans in our kitchens, from Bruno Loubet to Tim Montgomery, and we’ve had some amazingly good times hosting the Noosa International Food & Wine Festival. This year, we asked industry leaders to share their views on the key issues affecting employers in the tourism sector. We hope to be able to present a white paper on the subject to Local and Federal Government. Not all small business owners are greedy mongrels; most of us do what we do because we love it, because we’re passionate about it.