One-on-one with Golden Century

05 July, 2018 by
Annabelle Cloros

Golden Century is a Sydney institution that has been in business for almost 30 years. Here, we talk to owners Eric and Linda and their son Billy about the impact of Sydney lockout laws on restaurants, losing chefs due to visa constraints and why they haven’t reached the pinnacle of success just yet.

Golden Century is a haunt for many things — tanks of live seafood, David Chang, cuisine that prides itself on consistency, and of course, the many chefs that trickle in for supper after service.

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Eric and Linda Wong opened the restaurant on Sussex Street in 1990 and are proud of Golden Century’s multi-generational appeal. Most Sydneysiders have enjoyed a meal at the venue, or at least heard stories about their legendary XO pippies — which we can report are bloody delicious.

But Golden Century didn’t reach its cult-like status without the grit and determination of Eric and Linda, who still work seven days a week.

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LEADING FROM THE TOP

The importance of a present management team at a venue cannot be underestimated, and staff are often more receptive and engaged if they see the top dog completing the same tasks as them, such as clearing tables or interacting with customers.

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“When our staff see the boss, they know [we] still have to work and look after customers,” says Eric. “One time, someone asked Linda how many days she worked and she responded with eight.”

While many owners look forward to the day they can step back from day-to-day operations, Eric and Linda still get as much enjoyment running the business in 2018 as they did in 1990. Striving to be better is an admirable quality to have, and the Wongs still think Golden Century hasn’t hit the big time — at least from their perspective.

“I don’t think we’re successful yet,” says Eric. “Some of my relatives say, ‘Eric, you’re so successful already — why are you still working every day?’ And I say, ‘Because I love Golden Century — I love my job and I enjoy work.”

Eric also cites another perk of the job — the food. “Everyone has to work hard, get money and then go to Golden Century for a meal. But for me, I’m lucky because I can enjoy a meal and still keep my money,” he laughs.

FAMILY VALUES

Family businesses form a large part of Australia’s professional landscape, and there’s often a deeper level of care teamed with a common goal to succeed. Family values are very much present at Golden Century and are shared between management and staff alike.

“Some of my staff have worked here since day one and there are more than 30 employees who have worked here for over 15 years; they all say Golden Century is a family,” says Eric. “When you have a business, capital is essential, but the team is just as important.”

STAFFING AND VISA CHALLENGES

Golden Century requires a hefty workforce thanks to their extensive operating hours from 12 noon to 4am. The restaurant currently employs around 140 staff — including full-time, casual and part-time workers — and are constantly on the lookout for more people, but admit they are struggling to recruit Australian workers.

Golden Century employs just two workers on the defunct 457 visa (now TSS visa) who previously worked at high-end venues in Hong Kong, and the Wongs feel Australian restaurants are missing out on talented overseas chefs due to strict visa requirements, citing high-level English tests as the root cause of many failed applications.

“We found some chefs from Hong Kong who were willing to come to Australia, but we weren’t able to bring them over because of the English language requirements,” says Billy, who is director of The Century at The Star.

“You’re stuck in a dilemma where the best chefs are in Hong Kong and they’re good at what they do, but they’re not good at English. When you’re trying to find someone who is good at what they do, why does English become such an important factor?”

Eric and Linda are originally from Hong Kong and employ a number of Mandarin-speaking employees. Linda believes it’s not necessary for chefs to speak fluent English if they can communicate with staff in their native language. “I don’t think English is the most important thing for them,” she says. “They can speak Chinese in the kitchen to the workers and control everyone in the kitchen. In Hong Kong, they don’t need to speak English, and if they speak English, they’re usually working in the dining area and not in the kitchen.”

On the flip side, a number of western chefs work in Asian countries such as Thailand and Hong Kong and are not required to speak the language to operate their businesses. “Food is a universal language, so you’re limiting yourself when you could potentially bring in a lot of skills,” says Billy. “You’re losing a lot of talent rather than bringing it in.”

Authenticity is also brought into question if venues aren’t able to bring chefs into Australia who specialise in their cuisine. “You’re trying to continue the authenticity, but if we can’t produce food at an international level, there’s a big disconnect,” says Billy. “We want to attract more visitors from overseas and let the locals have high-standard Chinese food,” adds Eric. “It’s really helpful when you can employ staff from Hong Kong, China, Singapore or Macau.”

IMPACT OF SYDNEY LOCKOUT LAWS

Hospitality workers aren’t the only patrons who dine outside of conventional mealtimes, and revellers in need of a late-night feed formed a core part of Golden Century’s customer base in the early hours of the morning. But when the lockout laws were passed in 2014, the levels of Sydneysiders spending time in bars and clubs rapidly dwindled, which has in turn affected businesses in the CBD.

“People finish work late and want to go to the bar and start at 11pm, but you have to stop at 1:30am?” says Linda. “Customers are always complaining about coming to the city now and say they don’t know where to go because it’s always blocked with construction; it’s not good for city life.”

Eric recently attended a meeting with the City of Sydney and says they are currently reviewing rules that control late-night trading in the city for retail outlets, bars, entertainment venues and restaurants.

“The council understands how to make night life better,” says Eric. “We can still sell alcohol until 3am because our licence is till 4am, but we are not the only venue in the area — we want the whole area to be busy so we can attract more customers. I say, ‘Back to normal, don’t make too many laws’.”

FORWARD THINKING

Devotees may know Golden Century used to have a noodle bar in Star City which was open from the late ’90s until 2008 called City Noodle. When the complex was refurbished, City Noodle was demolished, but the group was given the opportunity to open a signature Chinese dining restaurant in 2012. “We opened The Century in 2012 and it worked really well because they used to send a lot of customers to Golden Century, so it made sense for them to have a Golden Century-related restaurant on-site,” says Billy.

While there are no immediate plans for expansion, shifting into cruise mode isn’t an option for the Wong family. “We will embrace opportunities as they come,” says Billy, “but I don’t think Mum and Dad will ever retire.”

This article originally appeared in Hospitality‘s June issue. Subscribe here.