A year after a devastating fire forced it to close, the doors are once again wide open at Donovans. John Burfitt visits the revitalised Melbourne icon.
There is a whole lot of symbolism wrapped up in the presence of the old turnstiles that stand at the main entrance of Donovans restaurant in Melbourne’s bayside St Kilda. In one respect, they are a reminder of the origins of the historic building, which began life in 1920 as a bathing pavilion, and in 1986 became a restaurant. Yet in another way, the turnstiles also act as a welcome as people arrive to dine, almost signaling this building is open for business.
But it is their black, almost charred, appearance that, intentionally or not, is a stark reminder of Donovans’ more recent history. In August last year, a fire swept through the kitchen roof, destroying one wing of the iconic building and forcing the restaurant to shut its doors. But just like the famed phoenix, Donovans rose again from the ashes and the doors opened again in March this year.
“I actually wanted the turnstiles to stand out a bit more to prove that we are back on the bike and travelling along again,” says Gail Donovan, co-owner of the business with her husband, Kevin. “And we have just wrapped up our best winter season in 20 years. This entire experience—from burned and closed for months to a re-opened, revitalised and better-run restaurant—has changed everything about the way we do business. Donovans is a far better and stronger business today than it was before the fire.”
That seven-month journey could become a case study to keep business colleges busy for years with the many lessons it offers. It includes everything from smart set-up fundamentals to effective crisis management, through to re-creation of a brand and direct engagement with the local community in ways never previously imagined.
“This is the tale of a 20-year-old brand that had the chance to revitalise and to adapt,” says Kevin. “What we have been able to achieve is to take what we already thought was a good product up a notch in a way that inspires us as a team and that the customers seem to be responding to.”
Victorian-born Gail and US native Kevin first met three decades ago when working together at the Grand Hyatt on Melbourne’s Collins Street. After three years, Kevin opened Chinois Restaurant, and invited Gail to join the team. They married in 1993 and opened Donovans two years later.
“We had so many clients beg us not to change anything, so we listened to that and decided not to reinvent the wheel,”
On that fateful night a year ago, Gail and Kevin were at home on a rare day off when they received an urgent call announcing the kitchen was on fire. When Kevin arrived at the restaurant, he was met with the sight of the northern roof of the building in flames, as the staff along with 70 diners stood outside, watching in horror at the unfolding drama.
“I was numb to see it like that,” recalls Kevin. “There were flames licking around the roof and firemen pouring water in, drenching it. They turned the ceiling into a swimming pool and that was what saved it.”
Firefighters would eventually determine the cause of the fire was a rogue spark in the canopy vents from a flare-up from the charcoal barbecue. “And yet,” Gail adds, “we had them cleaned only four days before as part of regular maintenance. It just took one spark.”
The next day, as Kevin met with their insurance claims adjustor Alan Manning, he recalls he held his breath as Manning closely examined a copy of the Donovans’ insurance policy. When Manning declared every part of the business had been covered—to a figure in the range of $5 million—Kevin finally exhaled. “At that moment, it was all I needed to hear,” he says. “We were so lucky everything was covered, and that came from having a great broker when we first set up the business who made sure we had the right insurance from the word go.
“It had been painful at times every year when we signed the cheque for the insurance policy, but when we were confronted with a burnt-out business, we were so glad we had.”
The confirmation of the insurance coverage provided even greater relief weeks later when the damage report revealed things were far worse than expected. “Aside from the fire, the smoke, water and heat all did so much damage,” Kevin says. “The integrity of the walls was fine, but everything inside had to go and we had to start over.” With builder Frank Rossi, who had masterminded the original 1995 conversion of the old Jean Jacques by the Sea into Donovans, leading the project, construction work began. Headquarters for the business moved to Gail and Kevin’s home.
“We both love this restaurant so much that walking away from it was never, ever an option.” Gail Donovan
Rebuilding became the domain of Kevin along with head chefs Adam Draper and Emma D’Alessandro, while Gail rallied the staff, whose complete wages were covered by the insurance payout, together for a new initiative. Gail visited the local council of the City of Port Phillip, and explained she had a staff of 60 people—from experienced chefs and wait staff to a team of administrators—on offer to help the local community. She was soon in contact with a range of local charities, including the Sacred Heart Mission, St Kilda Youth Services and the Senior Citizens Centre.
“I had T-shirts made up and we became known as the ‘Donovans Army’,” she says. “Our staff went out to work with the chefs from the various missions in the field of production cookery and to help run these organisations. It changed everyone’s approach to what we do. At Sacred Heart, they manage to turn 10 cents into $10,000 worth of service and it made us open our eyes to what they are able to achieve, and that shows such a skill. Not one person on our team said no to it. In fact, they have all spoken about what they learned from going from our à la carte dining to production work.”
Back at the restaurant, Draper and D’Alessandro seized the opportunity to design the new kitchen so it became a more functional, more efficient space. The new design offered better workspaces and more effective workflow areas, along with the installation of induction cooktops, quieter exhaust systems, higher canopies and other energy-saving appliances. Donovans’ operating systems and manuals also underwent an overhaul, with new management models applied at every level of staff. Instead of most decisions being left for Kevin and Gail to deal with, the duties of the management team were re-evaluated with new responsibilities outlined for all staff.
“Through this time, we only lost five members of our staff of 60, and the remaining team have worked hard to create a new style of operating,” Kevin says. “Things are running far better than before the fire, and change is always an interesting thing—some people embrace it better than others. So, you have to give it time, but we kept reminding everyone that we wanted them to participate and hear about what they have to offer.” Adds Gail: “We have a saying that if everyone tries just one per cent better, then the entire business is 60 per cent better. So together, we make a very strong team.”
The menu was also given an overhaul, with eight signature items on the menu before the fire carried over to an expanded new offering. “We had so many clients beg us not to change anything, so we listened to that and decided not to reinvent the wheel,” Kevin says. “It was a little surprise our biggest selling item after the re-opening was the bombe Alaska dessert. With some people, it was the first thing they ordered—they wanted something familiar to them.”
The construction hoarding at the front of the site was not allowed to go to waste either, with new update banners hung from the front of the building every few weeks to keep the community informed of each stage of the rebuilding process.
“We wanted our clients and the local community to know where we were at along the way, rather than make it a big surprise at the very end,” Gail says. “We used that space to share a message for all it was worth.”
It was as Gail went outside the building on the morning of opening day that the dams of her emotions finally burst. As she hoisted up the flags and helped tear down the hoardings, passing peak hour traffic greeted the sight with honking of horns and many calls of good wishes. “That was the only time I cried, and I really cried,” she says. “It was the best thing—we had got there. We both love this restaurant so much that walking away from it was never, ever an option.”
With Donovans now playing host to full houses many nights of the week, and a busy advance schedule of functions already locked in, Kevin insists it is not business as usual. Instead, he likes to believe they have been given a second chance, and he refuses to waste a minute of that great opportunity.
“I know too many stories of people who had a fire and then went broke, and what happened to us could happen to anybody,” he says. “We could never have afforded to re-open like this unless we had our coverage. So, this is a very good insurance story. We thank our lucky stars that 20 years ago, we had the right advice. I hate to think where we would be now if we hadn’t. That is why we are giving this our absolute best every day.”