The dedicated team at Customs House in Brisbane has picked up the prestigious national awards for Wedding Caterer, Function Centre Caterer and Caterer of the Year. By Rob Johnson
To be named Caterer of the Year is a challenge in any year (given the ferocity of the competition around the country). To manage it in a year when your local industry has faced some significant financial headwinds is a credit to a very capable team. “Certainly this year has had its challenges,” says Brian Roberts, director of Customs House, this year’s Wedding Caterer of the Year, Function Caterer of the Year and Caterer of the Year.
“We’ve found corporate spending has been a little down this year on previous years, but there’s been a pleasant return of the finance sector hosting more events. That was a relief because those companies had reduced spending during and after the global financial crisis. This year in Queensland there’s been a small downturn in the mining sector, so that’s certainly affected some event bookings with some of our major clients,” he says.
Customs House, one of Brisbane’s heritage icons, is located on the river in the Brisbane CBD. It is owned and operated by The University of Queensland as a cultural, educational and heritage facility. Behind the grand Corinthian columns, it boasts exquisite boardrooms, a stunning ballroom, seminar rooms and a licensed restaurant.
Customs House is regarded as one of Brisbane’s premier function and restaurant venues and has unique facilities for all styles of private and corporate events. “The building, of course, was the original customs house, and it was built in 1884,” explains Roberts. “It has operated in its current state as a function centre and restaurant since 1994. It’s located right on the river in Brisbane’s CBD, so it’s one of the city’s most recognisable heritage icons.”
Over the past 10 years, Roberts has worked his way up through the ranks at Customs House, starting as banquets manager then food and beverage manager, then operations manager, and finally in his current role as director for 18 months. The event Roberts and his team were judged on was a cocktail-style function with a Great Gatsby theme. “Of course that style of theme works very well for our venue because it’s quite impressive with the columns and the sandstone and the history, and the main ballroom looks up into the dome. It was a lovely function with French champagne flowing and bars set up with cocktails, a big band and magnificent flowers decorating the room… it was a little bit over the top, as befits the theme, but it was a fantastic event.”
Roberts is quick to identify his team as being a factor every bit as important as the venue when it comes to meeting and exceeding his customers’ expectations.
“I think that I’ve been fortunate in that most of my team has been with me for at least five years, so that helps to create a consistent product,” he says. “My chef de cuisine, John Offenhauser, is continually trying to raise the bar, and the standards and quality of the food we’re producing.
“With the food we serve for weddings or functions, we always try to look at it more as restaurant-quality food rather than the old mindset, which is, ‘that’s function food’. That’s where our restaurant works well—we create new dishes for our seasonal menus and if it is popular and we get great feedback, we’ll try to incorporate them into our event compendium.”
The restaurant in Customs House overlooks the river and the Story Bridge. It’s serviced out of the same kitchen as the other functions, which presents another challenge for working in a heritage building, as Roberts explains:
“I guess the challenges of a heritage building is that space is at a premium. We’re not purpose built but we have been running functions and events through here over a number of years so we do have it down pat. We have a kitchen plate-up area which does service our main ballroom. The team are excellent—they just work with the limitations that we’ve got and they manage to produce some outstanding food and provide exceptional service.”
Functions are only part of their business, however, as their Wedding Caterer gong proves. Once again, the weddings market has fluctuated a little this year, but Roberts says it’s back now and forward bookings are looking stronger than ever.
“We did notice a small reduction in weddings for 2013, as did other venues in the Brisbane CBD, but bookings are extremely strong for 2014. We’re fully booked out for most Saturdays, and our Fridays and Sundays are filling up as well.” In fact, it was the Wedding Caterer category in the awards that Customs House has entered for the past several years, Roberts explains, seeing that as a real strength for the venue.
“We’ve certainly strived to have all our functions that come through achieve success. It’s not like we’re going to work extra hard just because an event is judged at the same time, and that’s certainly not the case with the wedding market.
“It’s so important that you get every weddings right because it’s such an important day in the life of your client. You want it to go seamlessly, and you want their guests to love the event. So we’ve been finalists in the weddings category for the past two years.”
The decision to enter the Function/Convention Centre Caterer category was a little more spontaneous, he adds. “We hadn’t entered that category for many years, so that was a great surprise to enter it, really, for the first time and to come out winning. The reasoning was we considered it’s a major part of our business; we couldn’t survive on weddings alone, and it is the function centre. We thought that is the two sides of our business, so that’s why we thought we’ll throw our hat in the ring and see how our product compares to everyone else’s—a kind of quality assurance.”
Which turned out to be a very good idea. Such an approach to service and food seems custom made for success.