The owner of Adelaide’s Cork & Cleaver on the secret to success and why being best isn’t always best. By Sharon Aris
In 1959 when I was 22 I met a friend and asked him for work in his milk bar in Rundle Street. He said he didn’t have a job at the milk bar but he did in a restaurant. He said “come in at 7pm on Saturday night”. I was there at 5 o’clock. From that first night I knew this was what I’d do the rest of my life. I stayed there six years. By the end I was running the place. The chef there became my mentor. He taught me a lot about food and service. I carry him to this day inside me.
Then a friend called me and said, “You know how I’ve been saying we’d go into business together—we should.” But by then I had three baby children so I said, “I don’t have the funds.” He said, “You don’t, but I do.” We took over Swains Seafood. It became an icon overnight. In six months, I was a full partner.
In 1978 we decided we needed a steak restaurant to complement the success of the seafood restaurant. There was an empty block in walking distance of Swains. By this time I was able to buy in myself.
I had a friend who lived in Tucson, Arizona who mentioned there was a chain there called ‘Cork & Cleaver’. I went there with my wife to see it. It was Mexican decor, onion and garlic on the walls, and a very limited menu: three steaks, a soup, salad and dessert. We decided that would not be enough for Adelaide. I took the name, adding my name in front of it. I drew customers from Swains and dressed up the new menu to suit the clients.
There have been very few changes since. Our menu is engraved on a cleaver—though we have daily specials as well.
In 1988 my mentors and I divorced. That hurt me a lot. They bought me out of Swains, I bought them out of Cork & Cleaver. Swains is no more which is very sad.
“‘Best restaurant’ today is ‘second best’ tomorrow. But a favourite restaurant is always a favourite.” Stratos Pouras, Owner, Cork & Cleaver
I have spent my time 100 per cent front of house. At the same time I maintain a close relationship with back. We got on extremely well. All I have to do is start talking about what I want and they know—we’re like a family.
I prefer to be a favourite restaurant rather than ‘the best’. ‘Best restaurant’ today is second best tomorrow. ‘Best restaurant’ could be the opinion of one vote—one gets 20 votes, another 21. But a favourite restaurant is always a favourite. People consider a favourite restaurant as an extension of their home. So it needs to be as good as the last time they were here.
The secret is consistent quality, friendly service, courtesy to everyone who walks in the door. We have many regulars, clientele who have grown with me. The staff also; some have been here 33, 30, 25 years.
You have to keep your ears to the ground too. Listen to your customers. You feel the pulse of the market. Then do changes, but not too drastic. Easy does it. Little changes for the better, but no cutting corners—do not use margarine instead of butter.
With business lunches, you need to know when to up speed. If they have to be back at the office at 2.15pm, you work backwards and don’t recommend dishes that take longer to prepare.
If there’s a downturn you cannot drop quality standards—you can’t give a smaller steak. People don’t want to hear your problems. They like to enjoy the food, the service and leave happy. You don’t burden them with the economy, how the market is down and that’s why there are less people in. Part of coming to your restaurant is to forget there’s a crisis out there. You have to make people happy, not burden them.
Then you watch spending, watch excesses, keep an eye on wastage, do what you can with power, gas, water.
Cork & Cleaver will remain in the family. I have my two daughters and one son-in-law working with me. Now two of the grandsons do too. I make certain people know these are my daughters, my son-in-law, my grandsons. It gives people a reason for confidence.