by Dominic Rolfe
What does the word hospitality mean to you and how has it changed since you started?
Hospitality means generosity of spirit and connection. I think the industry has changed with social media and all the online influences but the essence remains the same – put the customer first and try to connect with them. The great waiters and restaurateurs are the ones who can adjust quickly to different types of people and situations. People have different expectations and the best ones are those who have a clear vision for the product but are fluid enough to meet the demands of a varied customer base.
The expectations are higher than 20 years ago because people are more informed and the shrinking of the world means it’s very competitive. You’re now being benchmarked against what people have seen across the country and around the world. And that those expectations are higher, is a good thing.
The cost of opening now is much higher than it was 20 years ago but the profitability hasn’t increased in sync. But there’s a lot less formality than there was so you can bring your own ideas to a restaurant which in turn means more variety, which is a good thing.
Did you have a mentor?
There were people in the industry that we looked up to such as [fellow judge] Peter Doyle and Maurice Terzini. We looked at their passion and what they had achieved. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a business mentor which we really should have. I think this is really crucial. And it’s one piece of advice that I’d give to anyone starting out: find someone they trust and who has expertise in business to give them an outside opinion. Sometimes you get so caught up in business that you can’t see the forest for the trees. And you need someone to point that out to you. Whether that’s the way you’re running the business or the profitability.
And I also think, in relation to hospitality, the big thing is never judge a customer. Treat everyone the same; each person deserves the same level of respect.
What was the goal when you opened and is it different now?
The goal for the first restaurant was just to have a decent living and do what we loved to do. Then when opportunities present themselves, you can take them if you’re in the space to be able to take advantage of them. But you’ve got to nurture your team to get them working happily and in tune with the business so that you can trust them to go out and replicate your vision in a new venture. And to put their spin on it as well.
The excitement and challenge of opening a restaurant is great. There’s a lot of stress but there’s a buzz that’s hard to replicate. And if it’s a high profile location, there’s a lot of attention and it’s such a social business that it adds to that pressure. And if you handle pressure the right way, it can be a really positive and motivating thing.
Do you have a piece of advice for current restaurateurs starting out? Did you have a piece of advice that you’ve carried through?
The simplest thing is treat your staff the way you would expect to be treated. It’s a big responsibility being accountable for staff and their wages and everything else. If you can, use the “self-rule” (treat them as you would like to be treated) and be really honest and communicate with them. When people are managed properly, they’ll be very loyal and they’ll return the investment in spades. And if you invest in people and take the time to manage them properly, your business will be more stable.