The Gambaro family

Gambaro

Brothers Donny, Frank and John gather round their father, Michael.

Even though their Brisbane restaurants are multi-award winners—and one practically an institution—restaurateur John Gambaro is always looking for ways to grow and improve the family business. By Sally Wilson

John Gambaro is never one to rest on his laurels. Though he has a name almost synonymous with seafood, an enviable family track record in the business going back more than 60 years, and a trophy cabinet filled with awards, this Brisbane restaurateur is always wondering how his business can evolve and do better.

If anything, says John, the Gambaro Group’s most recent success—winning Best Seafood Restaurant, Best Steak Restaurant, and Queensland Restaurant of the Year in the 2017 Savour Australia Restaurant & Catering Awards for Excellence—places more pressure on the family to keep raising the bar at their two restaurants, Gambaro Seafood and Black Hide Steakhouse.

“The awards are great and we do love them, but what’s more important to us is that we’re displaying consistency to our customers. We want to make sure that we really do serve the customers as well as the awards say we do.”

For John, the managing director of the Gambaro Group, this means sticking to a few core principles. “We want to serve real food, with excellent produce. We want to care for the customer, give them great service, and make sure they feel at home.”

It’s an ‘old-fashioned’ philosophy that has been honed by generations of the Gambaro family after decades in the business. John’s grandfather Giovannibaptista, father Michael, and uncle Don were pioneers of Brisbane’s inner-city Caxton Street precinct, starting a fish-and-chip shop in the shadow of Lang Park (now Suncorp Stadium) in 1953. The Gambaros were known for setting a new trend: rejecting the traditional ritual of wrapping fish and chips in inky newspaper and replacing it with clean white paper. Over the decades that followed, the family expanded the business to include restaurants, a supermarket, function centre, and wholesale business.

The original Gambaro Seafood restaurant opened in 1974, and was passed down to the next generation in 2001. Today, John runs the business alongside brothers Donny, the group’s accountant, and Frankie, a “jack of all trades”.

John says he learnt a lot about the hospitality industry from watching the family elders in action. “My brothers and I were lucky to be schooled by such professionals and to see the way they cared for their customers. They taught us that it doesn’t matter who you are, everyone is important who comes through the door.”

Father Michael, the “commander in chief”, is now 80 but still visits the restaurants most days. “Dad is the heart and soul of the place,” says John. “We have chats with dad and if he sees something that he thinks is not to the Gambaro standard, we’ll hear about it! We don’t like hearing about it, so we make sure we’re on top of things.”

“Sometimes you can get wrapped up in success and think you’re just a little bit too good, but that’s far from what we think. We’re not perfect, we’re willing to learn.”

Keeping dad—and customers—happy includes never replacing a few “good old favourites” on the menu, including a lobster mornay, Michael’s signature pan-fried barramundi, and the famous seafood platters. John works closely with the head chef, Lukas McEwan (formerly of Rockpool Bar & Grill), to chase down the best local seafood.

John Gambaro

What began as a fish-and-chip shop in 1953 now comprises a seafood restaurant, a steakhouse and a hotel and function centre

“Lukas has a wonderful, innovative approach. He gets what we’re trying to put across,” says John, who regularly travels overseas to seek inspiration for Gambaro’s seasonal menus. “We concentrate on the fresh component, using Italian flavours and the best ingredients.”

While some things at Gambaro’s Seafood will always stay the same, evolution is a word that comes up a lot when talking to John. “We’ve got a wonderful family brand, but it’s so important to evolve,” he says. “The reality is that you have to have a mindset of keeping up and being open to change.”

One of the biggest changes for the Gambaro family was the decision to build a boutique hotel above their eponymous restaurant in 2012. John says that keeping the restaurant open while managing a construction site above was the “most difficult thing the family ever embarked on.

“Building is always a challenge. Our biggest concern was that at the end of the day, whatever the building issues were, we had to be ready for service. I had many conversations with our builders about cleanliness and quality. But we were very lucky that we still had wonderful guests who supported us.”

When construction required the restaurant to shut down for a few months, father Michael insisted Gambaro Seafood should continue trading, so they moved it across the road into the building that was once the fish-and-chip shop. Even though it was a “stressful” time, John says that the move got the family thinking.

“When we moved across there, it started to give us this feeling of where we all came from, our grassroots. We realised that we’d all worked there and that it felt so comfortable. So, we thought, ‘We’ve built the hotel, we’ve got a seafood restaurant, what are we missing? Steak!’”

And so the idea for Black Hide Steakhouse was born. With a reputation based solely around seafood, John knew they’d have to do extensive research to get it right. “What we didn’t want to do was have people say, ‘Guys, stick to your seafood business, you don’t know what you’re doing with meat.’”

John and his team thought about steakhouses from the customer’s perspective—what were the most common complaints? Firstly, there’s the texture of the meat. “We looked closely at cuts and which ones would work the best. We were very particular about making sure we had the best cuts that would tick flavour, that would tick tenderness and quality.”

“We’re lucky to have had a very loyal clientele over the years, but now we’re looking for a younger clientele to see how much we’ve evolved. If we can find them, we’ll be here for another 50 years.”

This saw the Gambaros team up with another family dynasty, the Menegazzo family from the Stanbroke Group, to exclusively supply beef to their restaurants. John believes this single-supplier arrangement helps the steakhouse maintain quality and consistency, and provides them with direct access to high-quality Wagyu and Angus beef—including John’s favourite cut, the rump cap.

Next, John considered the importance of cooking the meat correctly. “We adapted the overseas system, and what a few restaurants do down south, of cutting the meat. By cutting the meat, you pretty much guarantee that you get it right. Obviously, you’ve got to get it fast to the table because the temperature can cool.”

John Gambaro

Established in 1974, Gambaro’s Seafood Restaurant is now a Brisbane institution.

Black Hide Steakhouse opened in 2013, and within a year it had won a Chef’s Hat and R&CA’s Best Steak Restaurant in Queensland and Australia. Even though he was thrilled to see the new venture take off, John says he prefers to aim for consistent growth.

“Sometimes you can peak too quickly in this industry and you could be a fad for a period of time. The secret to staying in this business is staying in the business. So we just hope that we continually improve, day in and day out, to make sure we get the longevity.”

For John, none of this success would be possible without every single member of staff. “Our biggest asset is our staff,” he says. “I think we can get a bit complacent about how important each individual player is in this business. The cleaner is just as important as the manager. And that’s the great thing about achieving those awards—they belong to the staff, too. Our success is their success.”

John believes humility is also key to the family’s longevity. “Sometimes you can get wrapped up in success and think you’re just a little bit too good, but that’s far from what we think. We’re not perfect, we’re willing to learn. We do make mistakes, but we really take it personally when we do.”

Giving back to the local community is another important part of the Gambaro ethos. As well as providing local charities with a function centre in which to host events, the Gambaros founded the annual Caxton Street Seafood and Wine Festival and Mud Crab Cup. “We want to give back to the community just as much as they’ve given to us. At the end of the day, without the community you can’t have a business.”

As for the future, John says that he is always looking at new projects. Although he can’t go into details, in the next five years it seems likely that the Gambaro name will be popping up somewhere else in South East Queensland. “We want to expand locally,” he says. “Whether it’s a coastal opportunity or a city opportunity, our eyes are open.”

In the short term, John is focused on answering three questions: “How do we do better? How do we keep people coming back? How do we attract new people to our restaurant?” This also means rethinking marketing to appeal to a new generation of diners. “Because we’ve been here for so long, our biggest thing is: how do we market to the new generation—those lovely people who have come with their parents and their grandparents?”

John says he’s still experimenting with digital marketing. “Advertising is evolving really quickly. We’re looking at more interactive social media, and telling stories. We’d like to introduce more live video of the great stuff that we are doing on a day-to-day basis. You have to do a little bit of everything.

“We’re lucky to have had a very loyal clientele over the years, but now we’re looking for a younger clientele to see how much we’ve evolved. If we can find them, we’ll be here for another 50 years.”

 

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