Waterfront dining has a certain stigma attached to it, no matter where you go. It’s almost as if an ocean view translates to average or overpriced food, and venues can get away with it thanks to their prime location. It’s rare for a restaurant to offer a menu that rivals the scenery, but Catalina serves up dishes that are just as good as the view.
Catalina owners Judy and Michael McMahon met in a restaurant before they decided to team up — in business and in life. From Berowra Waters Inn to Barrenjoey House, it seems dining by the sea was always in the pipeline for the duo.
Being in the restaurant game for so long means Judy has seen a lot of change, both within her own restaurant and the industry in general. The Catalina co-owner discusses what it means to be a woman in hospitality, remaining fluid in a competitive marketplace, the importance of social media and marketing and why repeat diners should always be taken care of.
Judy admittedly started in restaurants by accident while she was attending university in New Zealand, and continued working in hospitality when she moved to Australia. “I loved the contact with people and really enjoyed it,” she says. “I realised I loved good food and good wine, so it was a natural thing to keep doing.”
Front of house was a good fit for Judy, and life really kicked into gear when she started at Berowra Waters Inn where she became the restaurant’s first female waitress. “The owners Gay and Tony Bilson loved everything French, and the French way back then was all men on the floor,” says Judy. “They had some time closed, but when they reopened, they didn’t have enough staff, so they gave me a go and I turned out to be pretty good at it. In my view, women are better equipped to work in hospitality than men. That probably sounds like reverse sexism, but I appreciate the warmth and empathy women bring to working in hospitality.”
After a few years at Berowra Waters, Judy and Michael purchased Barrenjoey House in 1983, marking their first solo venture. “It just made sense that we would continue to work together,” says Judy. “When the opportunity came up for us to have our own place, we took it — we both felt able to.”
The couple ran Barrenjoey House for five years with a young Neil Perry, going on to launch Perry’s in Paddington and receiving two hats for both restaurants.
Judy and Michael later sold the two restaurants in 1988 and worked for Bilson’s until 1994 when they purchased Catalina.
Judy and Michael have worked together since the ’70s, but being married to your business partner naturally comes with ebbs and flows. “He’s been quoted as saying we have been married for 76 years instead of 38 years,” says Judy. “Sometimes the boundaries are very blurred between our business and private lives. Because the boundaries are blurred, and I see myself as an equal of his, it can sometimes be hard to establish ‘who’s the boss’ — I think that’s probably the biggest issue. We just have to deal with that and respect each other’s views.”
In the midst of opening and running Catalina, Judy and Michael had two children who now work at the restaurant. But it wasn’t straight into the family business for Kate and James. “We insisted they go to university after school, but neither of them really had their heart in it,” says Judy. “They both worked at other venues in Sydney, but Kate never really intended on coming to work for us. I think James always wanted to work here, though.”
Kate and James are both managers at Catalina, and have the unique experience of growing up in a restaurant, both on the floor and as diners. “They bring completely different attitudes to the business,” says Judy. “They can work in partnership like Michael and I have and we can see a succession plan — it’s a pretty good future scenario.”
Operating a restaurant in 2018 is worlds apart from running one in the ’90s. Remaining fluid is a must, and Catalina has managed to navigate a realm of changes and disruptions over the years. “During the GFC, we were looking at bookings dropping off and wondering what on earth would happen to our business and all the people we employ. That was one of the real downs of our 24 years, but we bounced back.”
Utilising technology has also changed considerably since Catalina first opened its doors. “When we started, the internet was really just establishing itself and there wasn’t any email; everything was mail, phone or fax,” says Judy. “We did quoting by mail or fax and would have to wait for someone to send a cheque for a function. Now, we have email, booking systems and it’s such a faster life. We have developed an online database and take bookings through platforms like Dimmi, Qantas, etc. There are a lot of advantages to doing business these days.”
SOCIAL MEDIA AND MARKETING
Catalina has a significant social media presence and uses the platform to market new dishes and cocktails. The restaurant’s account currently has over 32,000 followers — an impressive number for a venue — and employ a social media specialist to manage the page. “We have a PR agency who do our Instagram, but we provide the content and the direction,” says Judy. “We feel we know how we want to portray ourselves, but we need help. These days, I think having a PR company to help you direct your offering in certain areas is important.”
Judy says maintaining an updated account is crucial to driving menu changes and inspiring chefs to create eye-catching dishes. “Instagram drives a lot these days, and we photograph our food regularly. It ensures chefs are developing beautiful-looking dishes that taste great, but look better. It’s the wrong way round, but it’s great.”
The restaurant has also built a significant database over the years and sends out EDMs to customers about venue news and upcoming events, but Judy is mindful of how many emails are sent to subscribers. “It’s a fine line,” she says. “More people have databases so there are more emails going out — you have to be careful. Generally speaking, I don’t do it more than once a month. We send more when special occasions are coming up like Christmas or Father’s Day and a targeted EDM goes out to people whose birthday it is that month. We try not to have a go at people too often; they are really important.”
ATTRACTING STAFF AND DEALING WITH VISAS
Struggling with staffing has almost become a running joke in the industry due to how widespread the problem is. In spite of Catalina’s prestigious position in the Sydney dining scene, the restaurant experiences the same staffing sagas as any other venue. Although Judy jokes for Hospitality not to get her started on recruiting chefs, we’re glad we did.
“It is so hard to get good people,” she says. “We have a good profile, but aspirational chefs probably go to hatted and celebrity restaurants first. It’s very hard to get many Australian chefs at all. I have quite a few, but if you advertise, sometimes there will be no response at all and I think that’s the case for many Sydney restaurants — we all struggle.”
Fortunately, Catalina have the top end of the chef spectrum covered, and their executive chef Mark Axisa has been with the restaurant since he was an apprentice. “We also sponsored our head chef who became a citizen. He’s been with us for nine years and the others have been there for five years. We do a lot of sponsoring because it’s the only way to fill the vacancies.”
But due to the changes to the 457 visa, now the TSS visa, Judy is a little more hesitant when it comes to sponsoring overseas chefs. “The visa changes make you think twice about each person you might want to sponsor,” she says. “You have to pay all this money upfront and you can only get them for two years, depending on what their skill set is. My feeling is that the interest is lower from overseas; two years is nothing and no path to residency would put people off. I have to think about how much money I can spend to get someone, and you are just talking about manning the hot and cold section, not people creating menus or dishes. But these people are the backbone of the kitchen and you need the hands.”
Apprentices are another sticky point for the industry, but changes to training levies have thrown another spanner in the works for businesses. “Before the visa changed, there was a requirement to spend a certain amount of money on training, i.e. having apprentices, so your training levy (1 per cent) was spent on something within the business,” says Judy. “If you didn’t, it would cost you 2 per cent of your payroll to give to a training organisation. Now, there’s no incentive to have one anymore.
Before, I needed an apprentice to fulfill my obligations for the levy, now, I have to pay money to the government’s training program whether I have apprentices or not. It’s disappointing the way it’s gone.”
Catalina currently has one apprentice on the team, which Judy describes as a “miracle”. Although their executive chef is a case study of a successful apprenticeship for both parties, it doesn’t always work out that way. “Some people apply because they don’t know what else to do,” says Judy. “If they don’t have a passion or vocation, they aren’t going to last. We’ve had some wonderful apprentices come through for their four years, become qualified and go away and come back. You just have to roll with it.”
THE VALUE OF LOYAL DINERS
When you’re in business for as long as Catalina, regulars become an important part of continual success. Catalina has seen diners come and go and held on tight to those who have remained loyal to the restaurant. “They’re the biggest part of our success, and we have a huge number of return guests,” says Judy.
Catalina employ a unique strategy that’s not as common as it should be — rewarding loyal customers over new diners. It seems first-time diners are the ones who are gifted with a free bottle of wine or a complimentary entrée to lure them into a venue while repeat diners get squat. “We would rather give an existing customer a special gift for their birthday or give them an offer to encourage them to return than someone we have never seen before,” says Judy. “It really builds return trade and customer satisfaction.”
The restaurant also prides itself on maintaining a welcoming atmosphere, with staff members recognising and greeting return customers and establishing rapport. “The recognition factor is pretty big,” says Judy. “My kids have grown up and I have a lot of long-term staff — they know all of the customers. It’s a very family thing here. That extends to 10–12 of our staff who have been with us for so long and our customers feel that familiar context. That part of our business is integral to our continued success.”
Catalina will celebrate a milestone anniversary of 25 years in 2019, a remarkable achievement for a restaurant that’s just as loved now than when it first launched. The notion of family is at the core of the venue, which is shared between customers, staff and owners alike, making their 25th birthday all the more sweet.
This article originally appeared in Hospitality‘s December issue. Subscribe to the print magazine here.