Running a restaurant or catering business is difficult at the best of times. Multiply that factor by 10 when you’re hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest town. Chris Stephan goes bush to talk with the out-of-towners
Fresh food doesn’t travel well, staff need ‘a life’, call-out fees for technicians when equipment fails are exorbitant, and bums on seats are all unpredictable. These are some of the problems faced by restaurateurs manning the stoves at the growing number of dining establishments springing up to cater to the penchant of well-travelled foodies for remote food destinations.
Down dusty tracks and at the end of very long highways, business owners in regional Australia are battling supply chains, market forces, and even the elements to provide diners with what the have come to expect in urban restaurants—and send them on their way with an experience they will never forget.
Soul Projects director and chef Kirby Shearing, best known for his foraging passion and fine-dining style at establishments in the south-east of South Australia, has nurtured valuable local contacts to overcome his main problem of fresh supply.
His latest restaurant project, in the Lakes Resort in Mt Gambier, takes just about everything a local Burmese family can grow in their unique market garden out of Kalangadoo, an hour’s drive north of the regional hub.
Shearing builds his menus around them, ever thankful for their “consistent supply”, which he recognises is a rare commodity in rural Australia. “It’s so frustrating to be operating in an area renowned for produce, such as premium potatoes and onions, and not being able to buy them locally,” he says, bemoaning a system that encourages growers to sell in bulk to city markets, instead of looking after local providers.
Instead, he reluctantly buys well-travelled spuds, and cooks with leeks fresh from the Burmese family’s soil.
Shearing loves to forage for native plants, but with his own business to run, reality has set in. The 15-hour days “trying to manage everything” allow no time for romantic forays into neighbouring fields, and his specialty of sourcing sea greens snatched from coastal rocks and crevices is limited to precious hours on his one day off. “Foraging is time consuming, but at least I have this great local line of supply now,” he says.
In the coastal town of Robe, four hours south of Adelaide, Adam Brooks, owner/chef of the town’s fine diner Sails, also shapes his menu according to local produce but says it wouldn’t work without the restaurant’s “garnish garden”.
Despite the coastal location, buying local seafood is cost prohibitive and supply is unreliable, he says.
Similarly, Matthew Cooper, general manager of Matso’s Broome Brewery restaurant on the far northern reaches of Western Australia’s coastline, says there “are great little fish places in town but that doesn’t work for us”.
The restaurant needs wholesale supplies and it needs them to be consistent. Brooks agrees, also noting that restaurateurs tend to be disadvantaged by sales-direct regulations when sourcing seafood from fishing boats. He would like to cook more local fish but off-shore sales rules have reduced reasonable access, and the bulk of the catch is destined for international urban markets.
Brooks says he is lucky to have a keen fisherman dad who provides him with a good range of catch, “providing the weather conditions are right”.
“Octopus is a staple here,” he says. “It can be sourced locally and is plentiful.”
Chef Jimmy Shu, owner of the famous Hanuman restaurant empire providing eclectic Asian dining in Darwin, Alice Springs and Adelaide, says issues including staffing and overheads unique to remote destinations contributed to the closure of his Cairns restaurant earlier this year.
Supplies to Darwin are “reasonable”, he says, but in Alice Springs his management team is continually contending with transport and supplies from Darwin that are limited to a weekly cycle.
The small top-ups city restaurants enjoy are too cost-prohibitive to contemplate, so staff must be extremely organised in terms of ordering, and also be inventive with menus to ensure they can deliver quality on the plate.
Again, local markets are used, but these also suffer seasonal supply problems in and out of the remote, yet major, regional city. Every restaurateur surveyed agrees that staffing in remote regions is a business headache.
The hunt to fill restaurant positions is “constant” at all the Hanuman restaurants. They need trained personnel with experience in Asian cuisine and advertise nationally, but perfect candidates are “rare, and then even more rarely do they want to live so far away from the cities”.
Restaurateurs describe the staffing situation as a revolving door, which gobbles up time and money. Staff tend to come to the regions to live “but they soon decide they don’t want to stay”, says Cooper in Broome.
“In the wet (in Western Australia), there’s not enough to do; in the dry it’s too busy,” he says. “If I could get three months out of the staff we train, I would be over the moon, but they just don’t stay that long.”
He aims to employ 20 staff in the WA wet season, and 45 in the dry (April to October) when the population of Broome swells from 12,000 to 50,000.
Getting the numbers and skills to line up is a nightmare. Most hospitality workers are travellers and backpackers who, by nature, move on much more regularly than the hours they work.
Local workers don’t stay either. Anecdotal research indicates that in Australia, hospitality is rarely seen as a long-term career path. Only chefs and restaurateurs tend to put down roots around their country businesses. Hotelcareers.com and hospitality websites show that in Europe, for instance, it’s more common to find—and for companies to expect to employ—experienced wait staff who proudly look back on decades of service in one dining establishment.
Husband-and-wife team Nick and Maxine Ikonomopoulos, owners of John’s Pizza Bar & Restaurant in Cooper Pedy, barely have time to stop shuffling pots to chat about catering logistics in their South Australian outpost.
Again, menus are based on a changing collection of ingredients, according to what’s available. “If they send the wrong thing and stuff up the order, I’m stuck with it,” says Maxine, the country chef who has become adept at “substitutions”.
“It’s so frustrating to be operating in an area renowned for produce, such as premium potatoes and onions, and not being able to buy them locally.” Kirby Shearing, Director and Chef, Soul Projects
“It’s not like you can send it back,” she says. “Everything comes once a week, and everything apart from milk, fruit and vegetables, is frozen.”
She is even bound by regional regulations that only allow her to buy milk from Port Augusta, 550 kilometres down the road.
With other supplies making their way up from Adelaide and Port Pirie, there’s no chance of following the low-food-miles trend. And the chef laughs at the concept of growing anything in a kitchen garden in the desert. Maxine also can’t attract trained staff, but those who work with her and then move on are better off for the expertise she shares.
Freight costs add a considerable level of angst to regional chefs’ bottom lines.
Those in tourism-rich areas say the cost can be added to the bill, but chefs in country zones largely catering to the outlying community struggle to up their prices because “locals just don’t expect to pay more, even though they understand the food has to travel”, says Bill Lindsay, chef/owner of the Murtoa Railway Hotel, in central Victoria.
He believes the locals also expect large meals, and look at portion size for value, “sometimes over quality”.
“And they don’t accept that side dishes are an additional cost, so salad and vege have to be included,” he explains. “It makes it tough to find ways to recoup costs.”
He and wife Katherine add lures to the business by arranging themed meals and even high tea for events such as Melbourne Cup Day and Father’s Day. They undertake off-site catering, and create temptations such as ‘roast of the week’. Lindsay says, “People love these events and they can be quite cost effective for us if we manage to buy secondary cuts at the right price”.
When the bottom line is so tentative, dollars for marketing and advertising to drive more customers deeper into the country also are minimal.
In Mt Gambier, Shearing is thankful for social media, which gives him cost-free promotional opportunities. He is a regular on Facebook and Twitter and is dedicated to managing his website, soulprojects.com.au.
Social media has also become part of the job description of Hanuman staff. “We work really hard to build and maintain relationships with tourism and community marketing bodies for the best effect”, says Shu, who is dependent on holidaymakers.
Bill Lindsay says he is new to Twitter and other social media sites but is hoping it will fill the gap in his marketing budget.
The hands-on Murtoa couple put together a complex network of temporary management with family support and babysitting, so they can make fleeting trips to major cities for industry events such as Fine Food to engage with suppliers “and hopefully do a good deal”.
He takes his own trailer to transport new buys back to the country town because saving on delivery of equipment “alleviates the commitment”.
“You have to balance the deals with the necessity to buy the best quality, because you can’t risk breakdowns, and call-out costs for repairs,” he says.
In Broome, if the local refrigeration mechanic or electrician can’t fix the problem, they have to wait and pay for someone to fly up from Perth, says Cooper. “It can put the kitchen out of operation, so we make sure we have back-up equipment installed,” he says.
However, every restaurateur interviewed would not swap their position and lifestyle, despite the challenges. The longevity of some of their establishments proves they prefer to be creative to survive.
“I wouldn’t swap the country lifestyle for my family for quids,” says Lindsay, who has taken his family back to regional Murtoa where he grew up, after more than two decades in Melbourne and Adelaide. “Business is tough, but life is good,” he says.