What does the word hospitality mean to you and how has it changed since you started?
Hospitality means being in the moment with your client and your staff, taking the time to really be engaged, gracious and generous with your time. I think that’s really important from both a staff and client point of view.
The hospitality industry is less rigid than it used to be and the definition of great service in hospitality has shifted a little bit in that it can be more casual but still considered to be fantastic service and thus a fantastic restaurant, without being stiff. Generally, people want to feel special and I think that can happen in formal and informal environments.
I also think the client is now much more educated and knowledgeable about food in general, about service, and has a much broader opinion about what that means to them. They have clear expectations of a restaurant experience.
Did you have a mentor?
We’re pretty out of the way [in Noosa] and I was really young when I started so I didn’t really have a mentor. So for me, because I was so young, I learnt a lot from my staff. A lot of people that I hired had more experience in the industry and I was open to that. I still find I am always learning from the people around me.
I think that when you’re young – as a waiter, restaurateur or chef – you have to be open to learning from other people to advance. You can’t let your ego get in the way. I’ve garnered a lot of great skill, knowledge and technique from my peers over the years, from people who have been really generous with their knowledge.
In financial terms, the man who is now my husband, was a great help. He has a finance background and helped me to quickly learn that getting your financial house in order is key. If you can’t make your balance sheet work, you can be the best restaurant in town but you’ll be broke in a year. That mental shift is really important. When you are starting out, you know it’s really important to invest in your business, and it is. But you have to learn to assess if the cost of the item is going to give you a return – ie is spending the money going to make you more money? If I didn’t have somebody who was much more experienced financially, who pushed me to answer the hard questions, I wouldn’t be here today!
What was the goal when you opened and is it different now?
The goal when we opened wasn’t to be a two-hat, regional restaurant of the year at all. In the first year, it was all about survival. At the time I just wanted to do something that I was proud of and my clients were proud to have in their little town. And that was enough.
As a result of that, we’ve ended up where we are. And each year we try to improve on that by making our clients happier and that’s resulted in a better restaurant. But it’s been a process of chipping away at it. We didn’t open 13 years ago the restaurant we are today.
I’m not a person with grand desires to take over the restaurant world. My nature is more hone and refine; I’m really happy with my lot and focusing on that. We’ve expanded in that we now run a farm where a lot of our produce comes from and we have just launched The Cooking School Noosa and Ibento Boutique Event Space. When we opened I would not have thought of starting a cooking school but these new businesses have come on line because they are a logical extension of what we already do and help us communicate our message to a broader market.
Do you have a piece of advice for current restaurateurs starting out? Did you have a piece of advice that you’ve carried through?
“Time to lean, time to clean! – share it with all your staff” But seriously, I’d say that there’s no room for show-ponying in a successful business, just leave your ego at the door, get in and get the job done. There’s no room for nonsense.
I’d also tell people to get involved as much as you possibly can, to draw information from as many people as you can using the channels that are open to you. The more you know, the more capable you will be of really understanding your business and your clients.
Finally, never lose touch with what it is that makes your clients happy. Without clients, without happy clients, you don’t have a business.