It is a restaurant’s most precious and easily recognisable asset. And, as Miles Clarke discovers, the one that is also most easily tarnished.
In many cases it’s a single word—Aria, Rockpool, Nobu, Guillaume, Mosimann—but it’s enough to prompt a booking when hundreds of alternatives are available.
At the middle and lower end of the market and with franchise operations, brand recognition and the standard it implies drives business in the most powerful of ways. One only need look around the food courts of the hundreds of shopping malls across Australia to see how important recognition is.
At the upper end of the restaurant trade, the individualism of an owner tends to militate against the replication of restaurants of the same name, as they find themselves spread too thin maintaining high standards across several outlets.
Yet some high-end restaurateurs are building brands through second and third ventures without trading directly off the reputation of the flagship brand—thereby reducing the risk of cannibalising it. In addition, there’s also the emergence of large hospitality companies taking over well-established upmarket eateries and giving them the management systems and economies of scale to ensure they thrive.
Matthew Kemp started Restaurant Balzac in Sydney in July 2000. His swag of awards include two Chefs Hats; Best French Restaurant NSW from Restaurant & Catering Australia, Best European, R&CA; Best Fork, Cheap Eats; Small Wine List of the Year and the Silver Service Award 2007.
As also the focus of a new TV documentary on the restaurant trade, Kemp’s success is undoubtable—but it hasn’t always translated as well on a commercial level, and he has faced many of the challenges the fickle industry can throw up.
“We moved Restaurant Balzac to larger premises in Randwick, but still maintained the lease on our old premises. We opened Billingsgate, which achieved excellent reviews but not enough trade, so we relaunched as Two Rooms, which was hugely successful—less expensive than Balzac but with the same high-quality food. It eventually led to some guests choosing Two Rooms over Balzac, so the average spend per head between the two restaurants dropped by about 25 per cent.”
Kemp agrees the success of Restaurant Balzac boosted his publicity for the newer ventures, but says there were still lessons that had to be learnt along the way.
“Having a good reputation always helps when opening a new venue. The media doesn’t need to do as much research before writing about us, which means exposure is generally really fast. In hindsight we could have opened a Thai restaurant or a breakfast bar in the venue—we would have avoided similarities in cuisine of the two venues and could have also changed the opening hours so they differed from each other. I lost a hat at Balzac during this period, but got it back the following year.”
Kemp has now opened Burlington Bar & Dining in Crows Nest, across the Harbour Bridge from his flagship Balzac. He’s happy with the concept, which is similar to Two Rooms but offers more flexibility in the wine list, with wines by the glass, two sizes of carafe and by the bottle. The menu is equally innovative, including dishes such as brawn, ear beignets and remoulade, grilled calves liver with slow roasted red onion and Gorgonzola with radicchio, spicy walnut and truffled honey—most available in entrée or main sizes.
“Balzac is running well and filling continuously. We’re concerned about the possibility of pharmaceutical companies not being allowed to entertain visiting doctors in hatted restaurants. This could mean a lot of lost business for Balzac, as we have established this relationship with many companies over the years. Obviously this is business we cannot afford to lose. It may force us to do something quite drastic in terms of the SMH Good Food Guide.”
Mark Best is the proprietor of Marque, a three-hatted Sydney restaurant that enjoys a reputation of being among the best in the country. He also operates two other ventures.
“Moog was ostensibly a wine bar with a large wine list and the first to offer modern tapas. The Four in Hand was a contemporary take on a small French Bistro. The clientele was very different, but there was some crossover. It became evident there was a connection to each other, to Marque and to myself, through the style of the food and the wine lists.
“This was heavily promoted through the major food media using my reputation at Marque and as ‘Mark Best’ to generate a considerable amount of editorial. The hard work in this regard had mostly already been done at Marque over the preceding six years. The new venues used this brand leverage to open with a bang. In 2006 we had five hats in the SMH Good Food Guide—three for Marque and one each for the others.”
Best says his main challenge in running multiple venues is time: “There is never enough. It’s a matter of having skilled key staff trained in the ideals of Marque to manage the other outlets. It has the added benefit of offering the most skilled staff autonomy and the kudos of managing, ostensibly, their own place without some of the financial pressures of an actual owner.
“Giving these idealistic employees ‘ownership’ is self fulfilling. Having good financial reporting procedures is essential. It is also important that the concepts are so different from the flagship that the customer will not expect to see me in person on a regular basis. This is obviously impossible, however I would work in the other venues at least once a week to gauge any issues that may have arisen and talk to the customers.”
Mark Best is under no illusions that success can be a slippery pole.
“I take nothing for granted. We put an enormous amount of energy into staying on top—complacency or contemplation of our own genius is not an option. Any brand has to constantly reinvent to maintain the interest of the consumer. The energy must remain strong and palpable,” he says.
“We have never advertised. A small business cannot afford it and the results are spurious and hard to measure. I drive the business through simple things like greeting and saying goodnight to my customers, exemplary standards, a food, wine and service concept that is ever moving forward.”
The two-year-old Australian International Hospitality group is currently spearheading a program to acquire a diverse collection of restaurant and catering operations of well-established and mostly upmarket brands.
These include the three restaurants in Sydney Tower, La Grillade in St Leonards, La Sala in Surry Hills, Watt Modern Dining in Brisbane’s Powerhouse, the Boathouse at Noosa, and Trippas White Catering, which caters for a number of prestigious museums, galleries and other establishments.
“In many instances we have retained the entire team and barely had to put any of our people in the restaurants,” says Rodger Powell, Chief Executive of AIH and former CEO of Best Western Australia.
“Our experience is that the staff are enjoying the responsibility that the new working environment provides. We also try and keep them well advised about the financial situation of the restaurant—they’re always properly paid, they recieve all the benefits they are entitled to and they are able to take holidays when they want, because we have experienced staff that we can bring in from the other venues,” he explains.
“It’s a fallacy that only an owner/operator can make an ongoing success of an upmarket restaurant.”
The AIH model follows those of several in the UK and Europe—such as the Conran Group, which has a whopping 40 single brand restaurants.
Among the benefits of such corporate ownership is the purchasing power that a large company brings, as well as the introduction of solid management systems that might be lacking under the direction of a restaurateur whose skills are mostly culinary.
Powell says the human resource benefit is also significant across these larger companies.
“Our people now don’t have to change jobs if they’re ready for a change of scenery. They can get other skills and experiences by working in various restaurants within the group.”
There are also strong marketing benefits to be achieved, even though all the outlets within the AIH group are still individually promoted at a consumer level. The company has contracts with some 200 tour operators and this provides the opportunity to cross-promote the various venues to the inbound market, while being mindful not to disenfranchise the existing customer groups.
Powell remains bullish about the future of the foodservice sector and sees his company bringing a further eight to ten restaurants into the fold
within the short term.
“There’s a lot of doom and gloom being spread about, but we’re seeing some excellent figures across the group and business is looking up in most instances. Dining out has become an integral part of life. It’s how people reward themselves in their busy lives and that’s not about to change.”