The key to longevity in the hospitality game is drive, passion and a commitment to your diners, writes Aoife Boothroyd.

When you take a look at the Australian hospitality scene at face value, it’s not exactly the most sound investment.

High failure rates coupled with huge overheads, seasonal fluctuations in business and low profit margins don’t exactly make for an attractive prospectus. But if you talk to some of the nation’s most successful operators – those that have been in the scene for a few decades – you’ll realise that this gig has little to do with money; it’s all about passion, drive and a commitment to your diners. That’s what makes a venue stand the test of time.

The Pantry has been a staple of the Brighton hospitality scene for 23 years and owner Daniel Vaughan says that the venue’s constantly evolving business model, coupled with a deep respect and admiration for the industry, is what keeps him at the top of his game.

Starting off as a cafe and restaurant in 1992, The Pantry is now a 220-seat restaurant complete with a deli, an adjoining burger joint (The Royale Brothers), a Japanese takeaway (Hero) outlet and a separate catering business which actually precedes The Pantry by around four years. The staff at The Pantry have also remained relatively consistent over the years – a handful of which have been with the business for 12- 14 years.

@pantry-old.jpgThe Pantry 1997

“We started with a very small business and it just expanded over the years to take over the adjoining shops, but I think what’s allowed us to continue to evolve and stay current is that we’re a group of people that love what we do,” says Vaughan.

“It’s not a chore for us to maintain that sort of connection with the industry. Even on our time off we’re looking at what other people are doing, following trends and following the seasons because it’s something that we love doing. It’s not about copying what other people are successfully doing, it’s about listening to your customers and listening to your staff. It’s listening to what the industry is saying and watching what’s happening overseas.

“As soon as you see something that inspires you, you sort of want to embed that into your DNA and into the DNA of your business, your staff, your kitchen, your plate and your customer. So in a roundabout fashion, it’s the love of the business that keeps you current. It’s all about sharing information, sharing knowledge and sharing experiences.”

@pantry-new.jpgThe Pantry 2015

In addition to expanding the business’ physical footprint, Vaughan also saw the importance of value-adding a few years back when he launched The Pantry’s masterclass series. The series sees some of Melbourne’s most celebrated chefs including Shane Delia, George Calombaris, Frank Cammora and Scott Pickett share the knowledge and experience that they’ve gained during their time in the industry.

“The chefs stand up on stage and don’t necessarily talk about how many grams of this or that, they talk about what they do when they wake up in the morning. They talk about what inspires them, they talk about what they love about the industry, they talk about what they hate about the industry and they share that knowledge with the industry,” says Vaughan. “You know 10 years ago if you said that you were going to have another chef come into your place to promote their restaurant people would freak out. Whereas I’ve always seen it as something where I want people to share their experiences with me and with my customers. It’s not about protecting your turf, it’s about talking to each other and sharing that knowledge to keep the industry strong.

“We don’t work for money, money is a by-product. It’s about what we need to do to survive. You’d never go into hospitality if your main aim was to make money. You could be a bricklayer and work this hard and earn much more money but you know what, I wake up everyday and I never, ever think that I don’t want to go to work. I wake up everyday itching to get here.”

@pantry-2-of-4.jpgThe Pantry interior

If it ain’t broke…

Kumar Mahadevan, head chef and founder of Abhi’s Indian Restaurant has served over one million customers since opening the doors of his suburban Sydney venue in 1990.

Located in Strathfield, Abhi’s has garnered an exceptionally loyal following over the years, and the signature dishes have remained as consistent as the venue’s long term employees and suppliers. Mahadevan credits the ongoing success of the business to a number of factors, but namely, it’s the relationships that he has nurtured over the years that have resulted in the ongoing health of his restaurant. Kumar’s butcher, for example, has been with him since day one.

“There is a certain level of trust between producer and chef,” says Mahadevan. “He knows that any product he gives me I will treat with respect and do the best I can with it, and in return I can expect consistency and new, exciting products from him without any fuss. The fact that he’s next door also helps – if I don’t get what I want, I know where to find him.”

HO1015_TEST_OF_TIME_ABHI-s_-CIRCA-1995.jpgAbhi's 1995

Often regarded as the ‘Godfather’ of Indian cuisine in Australia, Mahadevan tasked himself with the mission of promoting and educating Australians on the diversity of regional Indian cuisine. Although the menu has evolved over the years and new dishes have been added, Mahadevan says that Abhi’s has predominately stuck to its core curries which reflect the flavours of Southern Indian cooking.

“I travel back to India frequently to find out what’s happening and what new inspiration I can bring back, but the integrity of our menu stays the same,” he says. “Our signature dish, Palak Patta Chaat, has been there since our first anniversary and has been one of the most copied dishes in Sydney. The Railway Goat Curry has been there since day one – it’s a classic and we’ll never take it off.

“[The industry] has certainly gone through ups and downs with foams, fads, and nouvelle cuisine but the neighbourhood restaurant has always been something that naturally attracts people.”

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Mahadevan at Abhi's 25th birthday celebrations

Power to the people

Martin Pirc’s Punch Lane is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, a milestone that he says would have been impossible without the dedication of his staff.

When Pirc began his career in hospitality, the long standing businesses at the time included the likes of Jean Jacques, Tindos, The Latin, Stephanie’s and Two Faces amongst others, all of which held a huge emphasis on consistency in service, food and community. By adopting a similar ethos into his business, Pirc has been able to create an exceptionally loyal following over the years, as well as highly dedicated staff.

HO1015_TEST_OF_TIME_Punch-Lane_2.jpgPunch Lane

“In property they say ‘location, location, location’, my mantra in hospitality is ‘staff, staff, staff’. If you can attract talented people to work with you and if you can create an environment where they can grow and proposer, then you will stay relevant,” says Pirc.

“Melbournians love certainty and consistency – a place they can call their own. That combined with enthusiastic staff that keep turning up each week really helps drive the business, and encourages the development of loyal relationships.

I have at least 60 customers that are originals from over 20 years ago. It is a real privilege and a testament that longevity has its rewards.”

As well as keeping his loyal customers happy and staying true to Punch Lane’s philosophy of serving great food and wine in an unpretentious, casual atmosphere, Pirc is not the type to rest on his laurels.

“Each year I start saying to myself ‘if someone was to give me the keys to this business, what would I do going forward?’ That thought has served me well, and kept me fresh as well as being respectful for what has been achieved.”

HO1015_TEST_OF_TIME_Martin-Pirc_Profile_Punch-Lane.jpg

Martin Pirc at Punch Lane

The art of fusion

Matteo’s, as it is known today, has been a staple of the Melbourne hospitality scene for the past 18 years. Starting out as an Italian restaurant in 1994, owner Matteo Pignatelli decided to shift the focus from Italian to Asian fusion a number of years after opening – a decision that he has never looked back on.

“I feel a restaurant needs to re-invent itself every seven years,” says Pignatelli. “I call this the seven year itch and I consider it more of an evolution than re-invention. You have to be one step ahead and give customers that new experience before they realise they wanted it. By changing, you are providing them with a new experience in a familiar and safe environment.

Matteo-Pignatelli.jpgMatteo Pignatelli

“Matteo’s started out as an Italian restaurant in 1994. Initially it worked well, but after some time I began to notice that my customers were getting older and they didn’t eat and drink as much. By shifting from Italian to Asian, I lost 25 percent of my regular customer base but gained another 25 percent who spent more, hence a better yield.”

Over the years Pignatelli continued to evolve the culinary offering at Matteo’s, and has been rewarded with stellar reviews and numerous accolades ever since. Although the menu at Matteo’s is ever-evolving, Pignatelli says that the core values of the business have remained the same.

“I try to make sure Matteo’s is a place where everybody knows your name, and I make sure that we always maintain the basics which are great food, great service, entertainment and great perception of value. Every experience at my restaurant should surpass a guest’s expectations. And lastly but very importantly, it is all about the team. You are nothing without them.”

Matteos.jpgMatteo's

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