How do you make a restaurant work in an awkward location? Two award-winning restaurateurs tell Rob Johnson how they did it
Danielle Gjestland and Ben Shewry are opposites in nearly every way. She’s from the north, he’s from the south. She’s front of house, he’s in the kitchen. She built a restaurant in response to a market niche; he started out with a completely unique, original set of ideas and a market coalesced around him. But there’s two things they have in common—both have built award-winning, successful businesses. And both have done so in notorious dead spots, where predecessors have slipped from memory like yesterday’s newspapers.
Conventional wisdom has it that aggressive marketing is the solution to an awkward location. Except this is what Danielle says about that: “I’ve never had a marketing budget.” And Ben: “We never marketed ourselves well. We never had a PR agency. We didn’t actively seek publicity.” In fact, when critic John Lethlean approached Ben to review his restaurant in the early days, Ben did everything he could to put him off.
Both of these success stories seem counter-intuitive. But the way in which Danielle built Wasabi Restaurant (originally in Sunshine Beach, now in Noosa) and Ben dragged up Attica (in Ripponlea, in suburban Melbourne) like a phoenix from the ashes, have a lot of similarities. It’s almost like the moral of their stories is: start with a good idea, then do the opposite of what you’d expect.
A couple of month’s ago, Danielle Gjestland was named the inaugural winner of the Electrolux Appetite for Excellence Young Restaurateur by a judging panel which included Neil Perry and Christine Manfield. This is after winning several Awards for Excellence at a regional, state and national level, a chefs hat (the only Japanese restaurant in Queensland with one) and accolades including making Gourmet Traveller’s Top 100 list and the Weekend Australian’s 50 Best Restaurants. Which is impressive because, as she says, before Wasabi, “I had very little restaurant experience—my background is in tourism and hospitality management. But it was always people-related work, so I had all the basics, and I thought, the rest I could learn as I go.”
Six years ago she had come home to Sunshine Beach after eight months of travel, and was struck by the absence of Japanese restaurants in Noosa. She didn’t know much about running a restaurant, but she had a home-town advantage—she knew roughly how far people felt comfortable driving around Coolum and Sunshine Beach. In a tourist town, where everything is walking distance, an eight-minute drive is an effort that has to be justified.
But that knowledge was balanced by the problems of the site of the restaurant itself. “The site that we went into was on a corner at the bottom of a hill, in a strip of shops,” she says. “They’re all boutique-style shops, all selling the essentials of life. There was another restaurant upstairs from the site that had been running for twelve months, but everything on the ground floor site had previously failed.
“It was a dead spot, but not a bad spot. It just needed to have something that gave people a reason to go there. If I’d put a pizza restaurant there, it would still just be competing with several others in the area. It wouldn’t give people a reason to drive the eight minutes over to Sunshine Beach. We had to provide something people were happy to drive to.”
The first challenge was making the space look like a Japanese restaurant. It was actually three spaces—a former dress shop, a café and a pizza place—and it all felt disjointed and disconnected.
The second challenge was creating a menu that would educate diners about Japanese food without freaking them out. “I knew the types of client that would come in, and I knew their level of experience with this type of food,” she says. “I didn’t try to push people too hard too fast. A lot of people in Sunshine beach hadn’t eaten raw fish before. I didn’t go in doing things that wouldn’t sell.”
Therein lies the clue to how Wasabi worked in a difficult spot—Gjestland and her team focused inwards. Rather than trying to draw anyone and everyone into the restaurant, she invested in the experience of her immediate, current clients.
“We started off with the bare essentials and built on it based on what the clients needed or expected,” she says. “Our product was always high-end, but things like glassware weren’t originally. But all the money I’ve invested, I’ve done for clients in the hope of building word of mouth. I’d rather invest it in a client personally and supply those extra things that cost money, rather than putting an ad in the paper, so we
really relied on that.”
When Ben Shewry started at Attica, he hadn’t thought about much except the food. He knew David Maccora’s restaurant well enough—he walked past it regularly on his way to and from work. “I always thought it was a restaurant with good bones but not much soul,” he says. “When I went for the job there, I was at a time in my life when I needed to take a step up from where I was. We’d just had our first child and I needed to earn a bit more money.”
He spent a month working on his first menu, but hadn’t given a lot of thought to the actual restaurant itself:
“I always thought it was a nice room. I knew it had fallen on hard times a bit, but I didn’t understand the extent of that until I started working. It was pretty grim.”
On his first day, he walked in to see a whiteboard on which they’d marked out all the bookings for the previous week and the current week. In a restaurant that can seat 55, they’d had two people on Tuesday of the last week, five on the Thursday, 18 on the Saturday. “On the first night we had two people,” he recalls. “It didn’t pick up for quite a long time. The initial reviews were favourable, but it died down again after a month or so. It takes a long time to get word out when you’re in a difficult location.”
Shewry compounded his difficulties by sticking to his original vision. “I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing,” he says. “I thought there was enough risotto in Melbourne already, for example, so I never did traditional things like risotto. I guess the philosophy was to be different.”
During that first week, a table of customers came in, looked at the menu, and said, ‘Whoever wrote this menu was on speed’, then got up and walked out. That, says Shewry, was pretty demoralising. What’s worse, he didn’t have any strategies for dealing with it: “I didn’t have any experience in doing this kind of thing before. I just stuck to my beliefs, which was if we did something of high quality and I developed my own style, we’d gain recognition.”
Like Danielle Gjestland, he didn’t have a marketing budget, or even a real marketing plan. But he instinctively knew to focus on addressing those things he could control: for example, he realised his predecessors had run the food costs up and didn’t utilise cheaper cuts. “Many chefs will take things that are easy to cook but expensive to buy,” he says. “So we were working more by taking the cheaper cuts. High food costs and a lack of direction were the big issues in the past.”
Beyond that—and similar to Gjestland—he looked inward. His plan became to improve the core of the restaurant. “When we had more money we spent it on better cutlery or glassware. We kept the prices low and we hoped that people would come.
“It wasn’t really until the second Good Food Guide review (in 2008), where we got two hats, that people started taking notice,” he says. “Then last year we won Restaurant Of The Year and Dish Of The Year in the Good Food Guide, which were huge accolades for a suburban restaurant.” Only then did the bookings roll in regularly.
Not content with starting her restaurant in one difficult location, earlier this year Gjestland moved Wasabi to a new
location on the water in Noosa—again in a difficult spot. “It’s a kilometre from Hastings Street, so not too far, but too far if you’re holidaying in Hastings Street,” she says. “So it’s a little bit out of the range of what’s convenient—but Sunshine Beach was less so. Opening in Sunshine Beach was a big risk. Moving here, we already had a reputation.”
The move was precipitated by natural attrition; the restaurant needed a proper refit, and one of the regular clients had been harassing her to check out the space he had available in Noosa Sound. “I kept saying no,” she recalls, “but he talked me into coming out and looking at the place and I did and had a look around, and I had the restaurant designed in my head before I walked out the door. It’s a beautiful spot.”
She deliberately didn’t want the new Wasabi to look like a holiday-resort restaurant: “It has a more contemporary look than a holiday resort. Most resort town restaurants are open plan. I’ve designed little segments and sections which gives it a boutiquey feel, and gets a different customer.”
Both Gjestland and Shewry admit that luck and good press has played a major part in their success. “We’ve had some fantastic press over the past six years,” says Gjestland. “When we first started out the editor of Gourmet Traveller happened to be in town and came in and loved it, so gave us this wonderful stop-press write up in the Gourmet Traveller Guide. But that wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have the right product.”
Shewry is even more blunt about the secret of success. “I think the secret is being incredibly determined and ambitious,” he says. “And we still are.”