During 2022 we were lucky to sit down and chat with some legends of the Melbourne hospitality industry in our series, The Institutions. These guys have been at it for decades and are still going strong… Here we’ve taken some of our favourite tips, quotes and lessons they’ve learned after many years in this fine business.
Gail Donovan chatted about the much-loved and awarded St Kilda restaurant, Donovans, that she owns with her husband Kevin.
Their collective 111 collective years working in hospitality and their generosity saw Gail sharing stories and offering advice that any restaurateur – anyone across many industries, in fact – could use.
“Two things that are really important to us is that we always welcome our guests to ‘our house on the beach’ and to be personal,” Gail says. “And you have to give the guest what they want, not what you they think they should have.”
Making people feel comfortable is at the core of Donovans business model. “It’s about allowing customers to feel knowledgeable, safe and happy to order whatever they want. We use really simple language on our menu, we don’t want to complicate things, we want to make people feel comfortable and want to come back, “she says.
Suzy Nishikura and her husband, chef and sushi master Hiro Nishikura, opened their restaurant Shira Nui in Glen Waverley in 2002. They’ve seen a lot in this time and created a ‘family’; their regulars from the early days now bring in their children and grandchildren, but it wasn’t always easy. Suzy shared a practical perspective on whether to grow the business, or not.
“We thought if we stay small, we can control it. We don’t have to rely on investors or anything like that, we’re in control of what we’re doing and when it gets hard, and it does, we know what to do, what works and what doesn’t.”
Although, there have been times they thought they wouldn’t be able to keep operating. “Sure, we have been through hard times and sometimes it’s been the external factors like new taxes and Super going up that have put pressure on us, but we work through it and know what to do.
She laughs, “I may be known as a ‘stingy bitch’ but when you have to get tough, you just do it. Our staff and the restaurant are extremely important to us and that’s the focus.”
Twenty-seven years ago, Caterina Borsato wanted to own her own business – after co-owning the restaurant Borsato in Fitzroy North – and she only wanted to open for lunch, a choice that would allow her to have a family.
Bank managers didn’t take kindly to this idea but the community she’d already started to nurture from Borsato did, “you’d call it a crowd-funder now,” she says, “and we raised the money to make the purchase.”
The basement venue had been operating as a pub and Caterina gave the room the care it needed - thanks to her keen eye and love of antique furniture and art - and her customers a consistent, high-end dining experience that – then and now – honours the essence of timeless hospitality. This is the essence of creating the best experience for the customer, every time. “I have some customers who only sit at the same table each time they come in; that table will always be here for them. Lots of deals are done here and our customers know they can come in and they’ll be looked after. They don’t have to think about it.”
Award-winning chef Guy Grossi shared his perspective on running a family business and supporting a business’s culture but also shared his perspective on when things go wrong. He says how you approach the obstacles is what matters.
“It’s up to us to create a cohesive team who are passionate about learning and feel empowered. We don’t always get it right, mistakes happen, but without failure you can’t have success, you must push through and learn from mistakes,” he says.
Guy also looks at any problems with guests as opportunities. “A complaint is an opportunity,” he says, “it’s really important to work with the guest to make things right and some of our greatest guests have become long-term customers because we turned a situation around.”
Describing pubs as his ‘natural habitat,’ Paddy Walsh has been keeping his regulars happy with cold beers and a welcoming environment for the last 18 years at The Commercial Club Hotel in Fitzroy.
“A pub is a local thing,” Patrick says, “something that people can make their own and use as they see fit, and we’ve kept it pretty much the same after all this time. People make of that what they will but it’s a big place, so someone can come in and read their book and not talk to anyone, others want to sit in the sunshine in the beer garden or be at the bar in the middle of the ‘craic’, all are possible on the same day.”
Patrick says that a philosophy that he subscribes to is to commit to a series of small things that make the overall experience better.
“Make sure everything is clean and fresh, every day. Pay attention to what music is playing, how loud it is, is it appropriate for the time. How do you present yourself to people and how do your staff present themselves,” he says.
France Soir’s blue neon sign is a part of Melbourne’s dining culture and Jean-Paul Prunetti has been the driving force behind France Soir since it opened in 1986. That being as it is, Prunetti would say his customers are the driving force behind him.
"You can’t do it all, you have to choose what you want to do and stick to it,” he says, “but really, it’s about what your clients want. It’s the client who decides what you do.”
He tells, “When we opened here, we had no tablecloths and then customers would say, ‘you have to put cloths on the table,’ so we did. We had paper serviettes, and then we were asked for cloth napkins, so we did that. Clients requested dishes that we may have taken off the menu, so we made a bigger menu.”
It may be called ‘old-school’ but it is, in essence, hospitality, that art of simply looking after the customer and making them happy.
Jean-Paul sums it up perfectly, “You can decide whatever you want with your business, but the client will decide what you do. You have to give them what they want.”
Talking about maintaining the ‘theatre of the restaurant’ and nurturing staff and encouraging their creativity was talked about but when we touched on MoVida’s growth and popularity, Frank cites having business partners who love the industry as much as he does as vital.
He said that the business’s growth is a team effort and he couldn’t do what he does without his partners or teams, “Hospitality is so much more than being a good chef, it’s about giving customers a great experience, food is only a part of that,” he says.
While Frank looks after the kitchen teams, Andy McMahon is front-of-house (FOH). “They’re such different skill sets,” Franks says, “Andy keeps the energy fun and positive with the floor staff. We do what we do based on a love of shared food, cheekiness and a sense of fun but keep it professional.”