Longtime coming

Photo: Glenn Hunt

Tyron Simon’s successful Brisbane venture Longtime was born of tragedy, built on authenticity and runs on customer service, writes Susan Chenery

Tyron Simon was nervous and emotional when he opened Longtime restaurant in Brisbane in 2014.

It wasn’t just the financial risk, the huge leap he was taking, or the staff he had lured who were relying on him to succeed. “There was a lot riding on it for me.” It was the personal risk. It was the fact that his business partner Adrian Thomas wasn’t there. Thomas, one of Australia’s best known DJs, had been hit by a truck and killed in Melbourne the year before.

“When he passed, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on. But his family said he was excited about it and it was one of the last things he had wanted to do. It was quite a heavy burden doing the restaurant and trying to open it in a way that was in his honour. In the year and a half leading up to the restaurant opening, I couldn’t even talk about him without just breaking down.”

When he went on to win the  Restaurant & Catering Association’s Young Achiever Award last year, the ceremony happened to fall on the anniversary of Thomas’s passing.

“I was thinking of him when I was getting the award. It is always very emotional on his birthday and the anniversary of his passing. I am very grateful for the success I am having but at the same time, you would trade everything to have him still here. So I am very emotionally attached to the restaurant.”

There is a story behind almost everything in Longtime, an authenticity that comes from Simon having spent most of the preceding year in Thailand immersing himself in its culture, sourcing vintage pieces from its furthest regions in what he describes as a “scavenger hunt”.

“You have got to source from parts that are unexplored by the typical tourist or person coming over here for the same reason. I realised I would have to travel round to markets to see things that might not be appealing to locals but would be appealing to people like me. Our challenge was that we had to get to these markets that were unwesternised. Trying to find a particular kind of lampshade, we spent two weeks rummaging through markets and vintage shops and often came out fruitless. It made finding something I was looking for so much more satisfying.”

Recently Simon has been a hard man to get hold of. He is opening Honto in Fortitude Valley in August, which will offer “modern Asian with a strong Japanese focus”.

So he has been in remote parts of Japan saturating himself in food and people. “I think it is important to spend time there and learn some of the culture and the way things are approached. I look at the traditional ways of doing things in order to give a unique interpretation of the food. I wouldn’t want someone to think our inspiration is Nobu. We want to be unique in what we do with our food.”

By the time we managed to speak after many attempts, Simon was in Thailand, caught up in endless meetings that went late into the night, factory visits, and business lunches.

Simon, whose background was in hospitality consultancy in Sydney and then textiles, had already spent a lot of time in Thailand. “I fell in love with the flavours. I really enjoyed my time doing consultancy but my love for Thai food took over.” Having seen a gap in the market in Brisbane, he came to opening Longtime with a clear idea of what he wanted it to be. And a business plan that is constantly updated. He wanted it to be slick but familiar, an enveloping place that draws people back. A family.

“The floor staff make it their own to learn the names of the customers, their children, their spouses. As staff members, we are all part of a family here and we try and bring the customers in on that fantastic experience as well. The floor staff are telling our story.”

“As staff members, we are all part of a family here and we try and bring the customers in on that fantastic experience as well. The floor staff are telling our story.”Tyron Simon, owner, Longtime

On his travels to the US and Europe he had seen “a real commitment to service. I do think in Australia it is looked at as a university job. Whereas it is an honourable job to work in a restaurant in many countries. And I think that as well as food and alcohol, it was really important for us to focus on the service to make sure there was a balance of experience in the restaurant.”

Simon hired Ben Bertei (former head chef at The Spirit House, Yandina) as executive chef, and brought in Nathan Lastevec (ex-Longrain in Melbourne) to work with him. Between them, the pair can boast that they have cooked for both the British and Thai Royal families, and worked under three Michelin-starred chefs.

“Quite fortuitously I met Nathan—who will be the new head chef at Honto—and he introduced me to Ben who he had worked under both at Longrain and Spirit House. They had worked together for eight years. They had worked for Martin Boetz, who is one of the most talented chefs we have ever produced. And to have survived and thrived under him, I guess they were definitely able to work with someone who is demanding excellence.”

Even though there are the inevitable disagreements between creative people, the kitchen runs “harmoniously. There is no yelling. Customers who are seated at the chefs’ bar are quite amazed that there is nothing more than a normal tone in the kitchen. On a Friday and Saturday, we probably do about 350 covers, three turns of 100 through the restaurant. The main challenge was making sure the service was as good as the people we had in the bar and in the kitchen.

In 2015, he closed Longtime for two weeks over Christmas to give his exhausted staff a break. It was then that he realised that most of Brisbane decamps to either the north or south coasts for weekends and holidays. Brisbane’s beaches are mudflats, but glorious surf is not far away. That powerful surf made its presence felt when it rolled up and through the glass doors of his newly opened restaurant Rick Shores at Burleigh Heads where he had found a “bit of a gap for South-East Asian”.

Simon has a rule of no phones in the restaurant but on this June night, he could feel his insistently vibrating with the news of waves breaking into the restaurant. “It was particularly upsetting to be in Brisbane and feel quite helpless.” He had known a high tide could happen and had designed and reinforced the restaurant with the kitchen and bar at the top. That time it took two weeks to reopen. Next time they will take the glass doors out, let the water roll in, and hope to be open again in two days.

He believes it is important for him to be in the restaurant every night.

“When things arise in the restaurant you can fix them on the night. If you can be sure the customers are happy, it allows for repeat business. “It is when customers are unhappy [and the problem] could have been fixed on the night [but wasn’t] that it affects your reputation.” You need to be very aware of the workings of the business. Being in the restaurant allows you to connect with customers.”

Simon truly believes that the first step towards happy customers is making the staff happy. “We do a wellness day once a month for our staff. Once a quarter they get the Sunday off as the RDO of that week. Then we shove on the Monday, the Tuesday is the RDO of the next week, and then we pay them to take the next day off. So once a quarter they get four days off in a row. You do sacrifice a lot in this industry. Your partners and your family, your loved ones are often on the receiving end of it. We wanted to allow our staff once a quarter to go on a small trip with their family. With the volume that we are doing and the stress that the staff are under, it is important. I am very lucky that my girlfriend works with us in the restaurant so she is very understanding of the hours. But if you don’t work these hours it is quite hard to understand.”

Simon still eats in the restaurant every night. “Every night I am excited to eat our food because it is so full of flavours. Just recently I realised I had to undo my shirt buttons.” He and the head chef often go on eating tours of Thailand, “to get inspiration to rewrite the menu and make sure that there are always fresh new items on the menu. Customers like to come in and eat their favourite but it is also nice for them to eat things they have never tried before. We try to get a balance of things you can’t take off and new items with a fresh new spin so people have a reason to come back.”

The original plan did not have a contingency for the success that has happened. “Not in my wildest dreams was our restaurant as busy as it is. We were so lucky that we were received the way we were.”

Less luck than passion, meticulous attention to detail and making sure the food comes with love. The plan going forward is to keep to his core values. “Just to make sure that the quality of the product and services remain at a high level.”

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