Pearls of wisdom

Chris Lucas has turned around the fortunes of the Pearl Restaurant Group in one of the hardest years for hospitality in memory.

Chris Lucas has turned around the fortunes of the Pearl Restaurant Group in one of the hardest years for hospitality in memory.

Chris Lucas dramatically turned around the fortunes of Melbourne’s Pearl restaurant in just one year. But he now has bigger sites in mind

Chris Lucas could never be accused of being afraid of a challenge. In fact, it has to be said that Lucas is a man who appears to thrive on them—even in the toughest of times.

In the past three years, not exactly the best in the history of the restaurant game as the financial crisis took its bite, Lucas has been keeping busy with a wide range of dealings. And it’s no hype to say he has come up trumps on every occasion.

In 2007, Lucas sold Melbourne’s landmark The Botanical for a reported figure well in excess of $16 million. Just over 12 months ago, he bought the Pearl Restaurant Group, and now happily reports that business at Melbourne’s Pearl Restaurant, Pearl Café and Pearl’s catering arm has seen an increase of 25—30 per cent.

Rather than rest on the generous rewards of the recent times, however, Lucas now says he still has more work to do. There are plans to open two more Pearl Cafes, and he has just signed a lease for an all-new restaurant and bar business in Melbourne’s CBD.

With all his bold confidence and many irons in the fire, Lucas, 50, sounds like a man on a mission to build an empire. While he does admit he has grand plans for the future, he stresses he is doing so with guided caution.

“I do worry about spreading myself too thin,” Lucas says. “But, I always keep an eye on making sure we don’t dilute what we are known for and what our capabilities are or just pursuing growth for the sake of growing. Many people in the industry do that, but I don’t.

“Unless I have a clear vision about what I want to achieve in terms of a product, I won’t open a new business. Growth can be a double-edge sword. It can be very exciting, but it can also kill your business. It can sap all your capital and your resources, so I take a very, very conservative approach to growth.”

Conservative, however, does not sound like the best word to describe the overhaul Lucas applied to Pearl when he took over the business in September 2009. He worked over the business from the front door to the back of the kitchen. As Lucas explains, at Pearl he saw an opportunity with a business that needed attention, and so he got to work. Menus were changed and replaced by iPads, pricing was altered at both ends of the range, a new booking system was introduced, and at the back-of-house, changes were made to stocktaking, financial targets and ordering.

What came in for the most radical change, however, was the way Pearl was presented in its marketing. “The number one essential was that we re-engaged with the market,” he says. “The business had disengaged with the market and it had become introspective and had lost some of its focus about what its customers were all about. We made the group more outward-looking.

“We re-engaged with the market, and brought it up to what we the market wanted. We became more aggressive with our marketing and we wanted to re-engage all the customers that used to come into The Botanical and had been loyal to that brand, and so I captured a large part of that market.

“Rather than thinking about what was important to us, we thought about what was important to our customers. To me, that is second nature and is the way we operate. It may be bold or a significant task to someone who is not comfortable with the culture I had, but to me, it was just jumping out of the way I operated The Botanical and applying the same rules at Pearl.”

It is not a smug comment but sounds rather more like a relieved admission when he adds: “It has been a very successful transition in 12 months.” The two new Pearl Cafes will be located in the city centre and suburban Melbourne, and there are plans are to open within the coming twelve months, with as many as eight Pearl Cafes operating around Melbourne in the coming years.

In April, the all-new restaurant is set to open, and Lucas explains it will not be a part of the Pearl brand. “The concept is going to be a casual Asian eatery with an exciting bar concept that will open until  3am. It’s a different brand and whole new concept,” he says. “It will have some of the skills set we are known for, but it will be an all-new product.

“My ultimate goal is to build a multi-faceted business, with a number of different brands in different levels in the marketplace.”

“I always make sure we don’t dilute what we are known for and what our capabilities are, or just pursue growth for the sake of growing.” Chris Lucas, Pearl Restaurant group

As Lucas talks of his approach to his many ventures, he seems to do so in a fearless manner, and always in strictly business terms. He speaks about branding, products and marketing as readily as he does about menus, produce and kitchens. The apparent lack of fear is possibly explained by the fact he grew up in Geelong, the son of publican parents who ran hotels and restaurants. He trained as a short order cook at the age of 14. He says the lessons from those days he has carried with him to today are two very simple rules.

“You must have the very best staff and nurture them to create a culture of excellence and loyalty,” he says. “The other rule is to have outstanding customer service and to always keep the customer in your sights.”

After studying science at university, Lucas then went to work at corporate giant IBM, later transferring to live in Japan and New York.

After returning to Australia in 1995, Lucas decided to return to the industry he grew up with and knew best, and so opened Number One Fitzroy Street on Port Philip Bay. The restaurant was a popular success, and then in 2002, he bought The Botanical in South Yarra and gave it a complete makeover.

Two years later, the establishment was awarded The Age Good Food Guide’s Restaurant of the Year title.

He says the lessons from his childhood, coupled with the years of working in the corporate field, have had a strong influence on the way he does business. “IBM was the most successful marketing company in the world at one stage, and I leant a lot of those skills from that business,” he says. “So I gained a global perspective of business and then applied that at a micro-level. If you are comfortable with your capabilities, there is nothing wrong with testing them and letting them out there.

“At the same time, you don’t take things for granted and you keep an eye on what can be improved. You keep your ego in check and your ambitions within a scope of skills that you know you can fly with.

“If you have a clear vision of what you want to achieve and they are based on strong principles—and my principles are about quality and making sure my brand represents my values—then the success will come.”

Being true to values of good service along with good business is something Lucas passionately believes in. It is also why he has spoken out about the cult of the celebrity chef. Lucas claims that the crop of celebrity chefs chasing fame is distorting the industry, and he doesn’t like it.

“What this industry is about is good restaurateurs are meant to run good restaurants, waiters are meant to be good waiters and chefs are meant to be good chefs. But the aura of celebrity is distorting that.

“When I see how many food TV shows are slated for 2011, I want to ask—if you are so good at running a successful restaurant, then why do you want to be on TV? If you are a TV personality and that is your career, then there is nothing wrong with that. But if you are a great chef, then your priority, in my view, should be about producing great food and not chasing TV ratings. That has nothing to do with producing great food and delivering great outcomes for customers. It can take away from it.”

Lucas cites the example of Gordon Ramsay as an industry professional whose celebrity status has since eclipsed the culinary skills he was once so acclaimed for.

“He is a man who was a great chef and had one restaurant. Then he became a rock star and opened a large number of restaurants, many of which have failed. So where are the positive outcomes for his customers?” Lucas asks.

“I just don’t believe you can run a great restaurant and chase celebrity—they are mutually exclusive. Everyone wants to be a brand and be famous, but only so many people can be famous—and George Clooney is one of them.

“But,” he adds with a laugh, “we don’t all look like George, so that means the rest of us will have to work for a living.”

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