Secret service

Brian-Roberts-032_PPNic Hogan uncovers the strategies behind the success of Customs House in Brisbane

There is an added dimension of pressure and expectation when you win a national award in the restaurant and catering industry—even more so when you are a multi-award winner.

Winner of the Function/Convention Centre award, as well as the Caterer of the Year award, at this year’s Savour Australia™ HOSTPLUS Awards for Excellence, The University of Queensland’s Customs House in Brisbane faced some of the toughest competition yet in the catering category.

Despite this, Customs House director Brian Roberts [pictured, opposite page] took it all in his stride. “Last year [when we won], we were overwhelmed. It was a great accolade and great recognition for the whole team. However this year, I think it now cements us as a serious contender in Australia as a top-grade function venue,” says Roberts.

It is recognition that is well deserved, considering the dedication Roberts and his team commit to the business.

“We work with a continuous improvement process. We are never of the mindset that just because we won awards one year that we can rest on our laurels. Of course, yes, we recognise we are at a certain level, yet there is always room for improvement. We are in fact always examining our product, looking at our food to see where our menus can evolve, even addressing our training needs to see what our team needs are, as well as exploring our beverage offerings,” says Roberts.

This on-going investigation into their business extends to what other caterers and restaurateurs are doing. “We regularly conduct competitor analysis. We look at what product everybody else is offering and hold strategic meetings with our team to see exactly where we can improve and evolve. I actually love going to other people’s functions,” admits Roberts. “It helps the creative juices flow, coming up with the next concept or innovation.”

The undercover operation often involves the whole team. “We recently held a restaurant planning day where the front of house staff, the chefs, my operations manager and I sat down and brainstormed ideas on how we could improve and get a better edge. After the ideas session, I took the whole team to GOMA [Gallery of Modern Art], which actually beat us in the Best Restaurant category,” he admits. “It was a great team building exercise. Everyone was involved and it’s always great to get out of the office.”

After the reconnaissance mission is complete, the team regroup back at HQ to analyse what they have experienced and observed. “You become aware of ideas and concepts that are, or are not, working for others.”

When considering what else Customs House does differently than the competition he outmanoeuvred this year, Roberts credits his staff and the level of service they provide. “We consistently receive rave reviews about our staff and how friendly and attentive they are, and the excellence of the service,” he says. “We deliver a genuine, friendly service, and the reason for this is that we’re lucky to attract a great pool of applicants. We can select only the best qualified staff.”

And it’s easy to see the attraction of wanting to work at Customs House, as Roberts explains: “People are proud of this establishment, it is such an iconic, beautiful building and people do feel proud when they come to work. This pride flows through to our service and how they feel when they are looking after our guests.”

Roberts is also passionate about defining his vision and goals with his staff. “It is certainly more than just a vision of excellence,” he says. “I want every guest who comes through here to have an extremely enjoyable experience so that they want to come back again and again.”

Personal attention to each guest is of utmost importance. “Perhaps being a smaller team allows us to give a more boutique, bespoke experience. Over time you build a level of trust that newer venues can’t compete with. In a function setting, guests appreciate personalised service even more. You’re not just a number coming through the door—one of 200 people having dinner. So, when one of our staff recognises a guest and says, ‘Great to see you back, Mr Jones’, it’s a positive exchange for all.”

One challenge his competitors may not have to face, though, is unique maintenance issues. “We’re often competing against newer venues that are opening up all the time. Issues such as maintenance of the decor and of the building are really critical because one of our value propositions, or selling points, is the iconic status of the building.

“It is 20 years this year we’ve been operating as a function centre and a restaurant. In 2012, we did a complete refurbishment of the kitchen and all the air-conditioning through the building. Next year we will do some stonework and front-office refurbishments. It is important to plan in advance for these aspects of the business to keep the venue looking fresh.”

Since Roberts has worked with Customs House for over 11 years, there is no-one more educated—or invested— in the daily operations than himself. “Yes, I do like to be involved in all areas of the business,” he says. “Because all the heads are my direct reports, I meet with them on a regular basis. I know everything from what the kitchen staff are planning to revitalising menus, to locating innovative cuisine from local producers, to how we ensure a welcoming ambience.” It may seem like mission impossible to get any better, but Roberts doesn’t flinch—“Bring it on.”

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