Watching their immigrant parents get up early to build their fruit and vegetable business from scratch taught the Moubarak siblings what it takes to succeed, writes John Burfitt.
The spices in their dishes might provide a kick and the heat in the kitchen might be searing, but it’s said the greatest fire to be found within any of the restaurants owned by Brisbane’s Moubarak clan is in the boardroom meetings between the family members when they sit down to talk business.
The Moubaraks, as owners of Gerard’s Bistro, Gerard’s Bar, Laruche, Hatch & Co., The Defiant Duck and The Apo, have within a few short years positioned themselves as the new kings of the sunshine city’s restaurant scene.
It’s an impressive track record of success from a family that first entered the hospitality game through the bar scene by purchasing Lychee Lounge back in 2001, followed by creating Laruche in 2009.
Each member of the Moubarak family has a specific area of responsibility—Johnny looks after operations, Elie is the creative director, Mel acts as chief financial officer and Katie is in charge of marketing.
And each member, according to Johnny, also possesses a strong personality which often results in their business meetings becoming spirited affairs. It’s precisely why, he adds, the model of this family business works.
“You cannot shut up a Moubarak and when there are four of us in the one room talking business, everyone has a lot to say,” Johnny admits with a laugh.
“If you are with my sister or my two brothers and they are speaking, you want to listen as they are coming from a place of true passion for making the business work. There can be a lot of debate back and forth—and a lot of it can be colourful—but what is best is we are honest and completely upfront about what we think.
“When we’re free to be ourselves, that is when we work best. It always remains a family business and that can be chaotic at times, but it does work. It is what we sometimes call ‘beautiful chaos’!”
Whatever they might call it, the Moubarak family have definitely been doing something right and striking chords that have added a new tone and style to the way Brisbane dines out. Their five businesses, running the gamut from smart Middle Eastern-inspired dining of Gerard’s with Ben Williamson as head chef through to the American-style fare at The Defiant Duck, are pulling in big numbers.
“We have learned you have to be flexible and you have to negotiate on your vision. That was when I had something of an epiphany.” — Johnny Moubarak
As a result, the balance sheets have never looked better and the Moubaraks have established their place in the restaurant game after a previous decade in the bar scene with Lychee and Laruche.
But it was that very decision back in 2012 to enter the food game with Gerard’s that met with surprise. Some in the industry questioned why would a group that had such a strong track record with the bar scene—not to mention the generous financial margins that came with the alcohol business—want to deal in the far-tighter overheads of the restaurant game?
Johnny admits that the move was not without its challenges.
“To be honest, it was really hard to get our heads around dealing with those differences in margins,” he says.
“You can make money in restaurants, but we learned it does take a while and it does take paying close attention to everything that is going on. But as clichéd as this may sound, we really went into it for the love of it, as the move into food was about thinking with our hearts.
“What we wanted to create was a place that offered a love of food and an atmosphere that people enjoyed being a part of it. It took time but we did get there. Offer me the most profitable corner pub in this town and I still wouldn’t trade it for Gerard’s. This has become our stamp as we have put so much into it.”
The move into the restaurant game with the creation of Gerard’s in Fortitude Valley also provided their business with its toughest lessons. After opening the doors of Gerard’s in July 2012, the response was hardly encouraging, and they quickly discovered they were playing to a tough crowd. Johnny admits those early months were a “struggle”. The punters just were not buying what was on offer.
“The vision was good, but we forced traditional dining in the beginning and the truth is, it just didn’t work,” he says. “It worked for some and got some good notices, but the problem was it didn’t work with the majority. People did want something new, but they didn’t want what we had.
“So we learned you have to be flexible and you have to negotiate on your vision. That was when I had something of an epiphany and thought through what our customers are up to. We decided we had to make it feel like they are getting real value and making sure they were getting bang for their buck. I went to Melbourne and Sydney to observe what other places were doing, and when I got back, we adjusted our format.”
That adjustment included a change in how the food was presented and the way the menu was formatted. It was also a change in the way the business appealed to customers.
“At the end of the day, you can’t impose your grand vision on customers if they don’t want it. That was when we had to remind ourselves that we are not the boss—it is our customers who are, as they are paying our bills.”
Within months of making the changes, Gerard’s had turned its fortunes around to the point where there was a waiting list on bookings. “While I loved our ultimate dream, I actually prefer Gerard’s as it is now,” says Johnny.
“Laruche had put us on the map, but once Gerard’s succeeded, it put us on a bigger map and is the reason we are where we are today.”
After Gerard’s, next on the agenda was Mel’s venture with Hatch & Co at Gasworks. The tough business lessons from Gerard’s were well learned and applied, as the new enterprise was deemed a success within weeks of opening.
“Mel was so clear about what he wanted to do with it, and while there were indeed some hurdles, he was right in tune with what the customers want, and it hit the spot from the start,” Johnny says. “It was a case of not being stubborn and realising what was needed in this new location and delivering upon that.”
The subsequent success of both The Defiant Duck and The Apo added to their portfolio and expanded the Moubarak brand, and the sale of Lychee helped them focus their efforts on the restaurant game. It was the failure of Mero within 12 months in 2014, however, that offered a new lesson about the importance of getting the location right.
“That was such a favourite for all of us and I loved it, but the location was just not right and that is something you can not overcome,” Johnny says. “It’s times like that you have to take a tough look at what went on, learn from it and refine what you are doing so you are better at applying that into the future.”
While the business eye is always on the future, it is their past and the connection to tradition that underpins the Moubarak approach. Their parents Laurie and Salwa arrived in Melbourne from Lebanon in the late 1960s to create a new life. From a traditional farming background, Laurie and Salwa soon opened a fruit and vegetable business, which they continued when they moved their growing brood north to Brisbane in 1984.
The parents encouraged all their children to pursue university education and professional careers, but it was the chance offer back in 2001 to step into the hospitality game by taking over Lychee that proved to be the turning point—it changed all the Moubarak children’s career directions.
“I don’t think any of us were considering going into this business, but when the opportunity arose, we all just embraced it and decided to run with it,” says Johnny.
“But it is from those years of watching our parents get up early and work so hard with food every day that taught us the value of hard work and what you need to do to create a business that works. They are the ones who taught us about hospitality.
“That upbringing created the business people in all four of us, and also impacted on the way we do business these days with each other as well as the rest of community.”
Which is why their business meetings around the boardroom today might be intense at times and possibly even volatile, but Johnny says all the family understands the importance of functioning as a team, and never losing sight of the ultimate goal.
“We all want this to work as much as each other, and we place tough rules and formats on each other,” he says. “And in all the time we have been in business, we have never once fought over money, only ideas. I think that’s what true passion is all about.”