Winning Customs

Photo: Richard Whitfield

Photo: Richard Whitfield

Brisbane’s iconic Customs House cements its position as one of Australia’s premier function centres after being awarded Caterer of the Year. By Kerryn Ramsey

With sweeping views of the Brisbane River, University of Queensland’s Customs House is a heritage-listed function venue that offers up-to-the-minute service and equipment. It’s a refined balancing act that has seen the venue nab the top catering prize of the Savour Australia™ Restaurant & Catering HOSTPLUS Awards for Excellence—for the third time.

According to director Brian Roberts, the two aspects of the venue come together seamlessly. “It’s not only a gorgeous place to work,” he says, “but it also attracts staff who are passionate about the building.”

In fact, the first question Roberts asks a prospective employee is: ‘What can you tell us about Customs House?’ “This is to see whether they’re looking for more than just a job,” he says. “I love it when they say they have dined in our restaurant, attended an event or have just admired the architecture.”

Having a cohesive, enthusiastic team is one of the reasons Customs House wins so many awards (the team also won for best Function/Convention Centre Caterer). To experience the excitement of the awards ceremony in Sydney, Roberts brought along his operations manager George Musat, banquet manager Matthew Leighton and chef de cuisine, John Offenhauser.

Overall, Customs House has 28 full-time staff and around 40 casuals to manage corporate functions during the week and weddings and private celebrations on weekends. “Our managers are skilled in staff training, support and development,” says Roberts, who’s been working at Customs House for the past 15 years.

“This generation likes to know the backstory of the client and their event. By looking at the bigger picture, the staff understands the whole event, particularly for weddings. They want to know how the couple first met or whether they’ve been living in London and just came back. Understanding the backstory really helps motivate staff and provide more personalised service. It’s so much better than just saying, ‘We have a four-hour dinner and this is what we’re serving’.”

A priority for Roberts is teamwork, which ranges from brainstorming sessions to team-building exercises. “We get into a meeting room with a whiteboard and toss around ideas. We look at how we can innovate, how we can change our product and how we can develop. These brainstorming sessions certainly produce some great ideas.”

The sessions have led to add-ons such as a martini bar and oyster-shucking stations—unique options that have impressed clients, particularly those who have visited quite a few times. “The add-ons can really enhance the occasion,” he says. “Instead of just being a function or an event, it becomes a memorable occasion.”

While motivation is essential, Roberts is keenly aware of staff exhaustion, particularly when a wedding may run for 10 hours. Personal service is a priority, with a team of seven looking after 100 guests (one staff member per 20 guests, plus a bartender and a supervisor).

“We’re always looking at new ways to improve. This year, we’re using our cellar to grow our own mushrooms on-site.”—John Offenhauser, chef de cuisine, Customs House, Brisbane

“It’s important to give the team encouragement during the night. If we have extremely long functions, we’ll bring in two teams. I don’t want anyone working an incredibly long shift—it’s impossible to give 110 per cent for over 10 hours at a time.”

Roberts makes a point of keeping up to date with current trends in the restaurant and function industry, and also works closely with the chef de cuisine, John Offenhauser.

“We’re certainly giving guests a unique restaurant experience when they come to our events,” says Offenhauser, who’s been working at Customs House for the past nine years. “We’re always looking at new ways to improve. This year we’re using our cellar to grow our own mushrooms on site.”

Being in the CBD, the venue doesn’t have the space for a market garden but underneath the heritage building was a humid sandstone cellar, perfect for growing shiitake and oyster mushrooms.

The chef de cuisine has developed a mix of degustation dinners and sharing experiences—popular options for weddings. “We’ve produced family-style share platters that are placed down the middle of the table. We’re always innovating, changing and evolving our menus while keeping up to date with the latest trends in how people like to dine.”

Offenhauser and his chefs run regular menu tastings with the staff, covering everything from recipes to dietary requirements. “The wait staff need to be aware of food that’s gluten-free or dairy-free on the menu so they can answer any tricky questions from customers,” he says.

Customs House has evolved its marketing by cutting back on print advertising and spending more on social media and search engine optimisation (SEO).

Roberts says, “SEO for a location-based catering venue is absolutely essential. If a bride is looking for a venue, they’re likely to type in ‘Brisbane wedding venues’ and that will probably give them their short list. With our Facebook, we can target people when they change their status from being in a relationship to engaged so that our ads pop up in their feed.”

Roberts also ensures that the building’s heritage is respected. Built in 1884, Customs House has been running an opulent ballroom, elegant boardrooms, seminar rooms and a licensed restaurant for two decades. Maintenance and restoration work are required each year.

“We’re very conscious of keeping our rooms fresh and painted,” says Roberts. “Earlier this year, we did a major refurbishment on our lower level to create a state-of-the-art event space. It’s quite unique to have such a contemporary space in a traditional building. Corporate clients love it because it offers built-in audiovisual equipment and cutting-edge sound and lighting.”

Customs House’s simple business plan—a cohesive team serving an inspired menu in a beautiful space equipped with the latest technology—makes it clear that this Caterer of the Year has many more awards to look forward to.

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