With decades of experience in the restaurant industry, Steve Anastasiou has developed a winning formula that works with any style of food. By Frank Leggett
“I was 14 when I started working in restaurants in Sydney. For the next 20 years, I was more into cooking than the business side of things but eventually I knew I needed to get out of the kitchen. Your body starts to give out if you stay in the kitchen, but there’s plenty of longevity on the business side.
“Our first business [with brother John] was at a Granville hotel [in western Sydney] in the ’80s, covering a restaurant and two bistros, as well as catering for the hotel guests. There was no rest for the wicked as we worked 18-hour days, seven days a week.
“But it allowed us to save some money for a new eatery in the city. Back then, we borrowed money from our parents so we could set up our first city venue, Universal Cafe at the old Westpac Plaza. At the time, we had to pay 22 per cent in interest, which was ludicrous.
“We opened China Doll in 2003 at Woolloomooloo. As a kid, I’d always loved Asian food and since we have a Greek background, the restaurant introduced a sharing aspect to the menu. Initially, everyone thought I was crazy opening this 150-seat restaurant but, thanks to the hard work of all the staff and chefs, we proved them wrong.
“We knew that all you need is a decent set-up in a good location with excellent service and clear communication. It’s not rocket science.
“Eight years later, we opened China Beach in Manly but in 2015, we decided not to renew the lease. We had a good location, great name and fantastic reviews but the one mistake we made was the size. It was a 60-seater in an area driven by seasons. It meant that weekends were always busy—in summer, we had to knock back 200 people on Saturday nights—but it fizzled during the week. On a Monday night, we’d only get about 20 or 30 customers.
“You never stop learning in this industry. I still make mistakes, although they’re not as big as they used to be!”
“After this, we opened the 150-seat China Lane at Angel Place in the CBD, followed by China Diner in Bondi. We were well aware of the seasonal issues with a beachside suburb, so we made sure we had the right capacity at Bondi. We can have up to 400 guests on a Saturday night.
“While the hospitality game has grown, our resources are very low, particularly when it comes to chefs. Many staff are transient or working as they finish their university degrees. To encourage staff to stay, we undertake training on a weekly basis. We keep them excited by involving them in all aspects of the business—from administration right through to having input into the styling of the menus and the wine list.
“We also do a lot of activities outside the restaurant, such as noodle markets and food festivals in different genres. A lot of kids put their hands up when we did the Sydney Autumn Carnival last year. There are a lot of different skills and events you can throw at them to keep them involved and interested.
“Food trends change on a regular basis so you always have to be up to speed with global changes. That’s why we went for a whole different ball game when we opened our latest venture in March. Mercado is a Mediterranean offering set in a basement on inner-city George Street.
“We’d been negotiating with chef Nathan Sasi for a few years. We realised that it would work best if he was a partner. It meant that he has ownership, and that gives him more motivation. In addition, it keeps us happy because we’ve got an owner as a chef.
“Once your formula—including the policy and procedures—is in place, it’s not that difficult. Mind you, you never stop learning in this industry. I still make mistakes, although they’re not as big as they used to be!
“I’ve been working in this industry for a very long time and it comes as second nature to me. I really take pleasure in coming to work—every day is a holiday. What other job lets you enjoy a great view while having a good feed, a glass of wine and time to mingle with people on a daily basis?”