Innovation in the hospitality industry isn’t necessarily about new products. Robert van Rosmalen, the Flying Chef, has shown that an innovative approach to thinking about fixed costs can create a whole new market. Sharon Aris reports.
Like many chefs, Robert van Rosmalen started out on the business side of things running his own restaurant. But recently he took a look at the lifestyle cost of this and decided he would be better off doing things differently “and a bit more innovative”. So he decided to fly.
More specifically, he saw how flying could be a very compatible extension of his existing catering business. Especially because he’d spotted a new market that wasn’t being well served by existing catering businesses.
Van Rosmalen realised that business and property owners in the NSW Central West like putting on functions and events, but with supplies, and more significantly staff, several hours away by road, it’s too costly and time consuming to do. Unless, of course, you don’t truck everything in, but fly it in instead. Soon after ‘Your Flying Chef’ was born.
Van Rosmalen’s first move was into catering, which while still busy, particularly on weekends, doesn’t have to involve the relentless hours of a restaurant kitchen. Then, being based in the Blue Mountains and deciding to concentrate his efforts across the NSW Central West—where the demand is, but the populations density isn’t—he realised he’d have to be more versatile than most city firms. So he set about setting up an operation that can do a variety of catering.
His House of Van Rosmalen provides venue catering, function catering, some event management and private dinner parties and weddings, and specialises in the idea that it is a one-stop-shop for companies or venues wanting to put on anything from dinner parties, conferences, weddings or big formal dos. He signed up as a chef with guesthouses and conference centres like the Old Dairy at Leura—who can’t afford or justify a full-time kitchen—and caters to companies like Rural Press that need everything from board and client lunches to their AGM and functions catered.
Soon he realised there was a significant demand for his services from remote locations, where the sheer cost of trucking everything in had scared off potential competitors.
“Because I’m an outsider who came to Australia,” says the Dutch-born and trained van Rosmalen, “I had a view that with distance, money is not really an issue, but service is and we’re very service orientated in our business. Customer service is very important. People don’t mind paying for an experience and we’ve got the whole package with Your Flying Chef, especially for the big homesteads. We fly in and can cater very easily for a lot of people.”
When he sat down and did the sums, viability of the enterprise added up. “It’s not a money issue, it’s not very expensive,” he says, noting one of the biggest savings comes from his ability to do a function in one day—fly down, do the catering, fly back again. And because his staff are only in the air for an hour, rather than on the road for several hours, a major staffing overhead is managed. “I can easily cater for between 15-30 people at a homestead flying in from Bathurst [where the aircraft is based] to anywhere: Canberra, Hunter Valley, even Lightening Ridge,” he says, “and do so for a price of between $150 and $200 per person. So if you want to have a party on a homestead, it doesn’t cost much money. It’s realistic.”
He’s keen to promote that price, he says, “because people always say ‘oh, it must be expensive’, but it’s not really. And for people who are living on properties, the closest restaurant is maybe six hours away, and you’re not sure it’s good either.”
The whole package
Having come up with the concept, van Rosmalen has been assiduous in developing his market and has spent the past couple of years working hard to gain access to interesting private properties, which are keen to capitalise on their homesteads as a venue. One he has signed up is the picturesque Millamolong station, owned by the Ashton family, famous for breeding top polo horses. But the undoubted jewel in the crown is Iandra Castle at Greenthorpe, outside Cowra. Built in the late 19th century, this outstanding—and unique—Edwardian pile was built at the height of the wheat boom. And with it now fully restored, its owners are keen to exploit it as a wedding venue.
But, because of its location, that wasn’t something easily done, until van Rosmalen arrived. “We never had a chef because of our location. It was difficult for us to get anyone,” explains Iandra Castle’s manager Rodney Kershaw, who then chuckles. “And organising a wedding is not something I’d like to do again.”
He points out that previously, while it was possible to arrange some supplies and facilities locally, the sheer time involved doing so made it impractical. Not to mention the added stress of dealing with “brides and mothers-in-law”. Van Rosmalen’s one-stop-shop approach where he flies in and flies out everything from cutlery to caterers and marquee suited them down to the ground, especially after he won them over with a superbly catered test lunch. Now basically all Iandra has to do is ring him with a date and the number of guests and he takes care of the rest. And, adds Kershew, van Rosmalen has also put a lot of time and energy into promoting the venue and makes sure he’s always there with a stall for their open days.
And it is this total service approach that van Rosmalen says is really the key to his whole business. “What if you take away the flying aspect?” he poses, explaining that just having one innovation isn’t enough. “What we do that’s actually unique is customer service. We put a huge emphasis on working with the client, on the service side of things.” His clients agree. Lenore McCotter is the PA to the managing director of Rural Press and the one responsible for booking van Rosmalen. Simply put, she says, since he started working for them in 2000 they wouldn’t dream of using anyone else. “He’s inventive. He’s amenable. He doesn’t get temperamental. He’s always open to the ideas we put forward and he comes up with a lot of his own,” she says. “He’s just the whole package.”
Margaret Morris, owner of Iandra Castle agrees. While she says first and foremost it’s a business deal, dealing with him is easy. “He’s like an old friend, which I think is very good,” she says, adding in her own Scottish brogue. “He’s a typical Dutchman. They’re very careful, very generous. Very open.”
For van Rosmalen service delivery also colours how he approaches an event. He points out that while it’s always nice to get chef hats and rave reviews, what really matters to corporate, wedding or private clients is the event itself, rather than just the food served. So while his standardised menus reflect his classical French training and can certainly be tailored to individual requirements, his biggest concern is getting the whole package right, which sounds like a no-brainer, but in an industry that can be flash and food-faddy, it seems almost uncommon wisdom.
This also means that while he still sometime works as the chef and sets all the menu directions, he doesn’t promise himself for functions. “I can’t always be there,” he says, pointing out that the previous week he managed three events on the same day. “Besides,” he adds, “you can always hire a chef”. Which goes to prove that while he might be trained as a chef, he thinks like a businessman.
The bottom line
It’s this bottom line concern that also led to some creative thinking when it came to amortising some of his other costs. “The main secret to any business is to keep your overheads low,” says van Rosmalen, laughing ironically as he waves out at his base’s million-dollar view across the spectacular Megalong Valley. “Okay, I’m located at the fourth biggest tourist destination in Australia, but I’m on a good deal here. I don’t rent the whole building.” In fact, van Rosmalen struck his good deal by helping out with the operational side of the restaurant here—for several years a white elephant that lost millions, as it was misconceived as a high-end restaurant when the coach-and-tour clients really wanted cheap, quick and cheerful. Now the 150-seat restaurant does simple covers like caesar salad and soups, pumping out up to 300 meals in two hours with just two chefs and is finally looking like a good little earner. Van Rosmalen in return has use of a high quality commercial kitchen, cool room and freezer, which he uses as his production kitchen, where he makes and bakes everything from scratch, including a honey-mustard dressing that has all his clients raving and is, naturally, also available for purchase. It’s also handily located to the flat plains of Bathurst, about an hour’s drive away, which is where his flying base is.
He’s also acutely aware of the other industry hazard of high staff turnover and happily points out most of his staff have been with him for the past three to five years. “We invest a lot of time and money into our staff to keep them happy,” he says, pointing out that the challenges of finding good staff are particularly acute in the Blue Mountains, as there are no agencies for a start. “One thing I’ve found with our staff, they like working for me because we do interesting things and that motivates them, rather than in a restaurant where day in and day out it’s the same thing. We go to different places, they get to fly around the country.”
He’s also always looking to the future. While readily admitting he’s still a small business, van Rosmalen continues to come up with new ideas. An extension of Your Flying Chef is the already operating Gourmet Flying Club, where, beginning at sunrise, a group of people are flown about different regional locations while Your Flying Chef provides local meals. He’s also thinking big, taking a look at catering to emergency services. “If there’s an emergency, a pot of soup, that’s what people need,” points out van Rosmalen, adding the obvious advantage that a fed crew can be out in the field longer. “And at very short notice we can fly anywhere. We can be in the Hawkesbury in 10 minutes, or half an hour later in Canberra.
“I’ve got quite a broad view of the hospitality industry, and I’ve been involved in many venue set-ups—I’m a project kind of guy—and I think its comes out in my business as I’m always thinking of the next thing,” says van Rosmalen. “But I’m also good at following through. I do everything I say, otherwise you’re a dreamer, and there’s a few of them in the industry too.”