Three Blue Ducks have just launched their fourth venue and the brand is going from strength to strength. Here, we speak to co-owner Jeff Bennett about the group’s food philosophy, dealing with expansion and their journey thus far.
Since the first Three Blue Ducks venue opened in Bronte in 2010, the concept has expanded to include three, soon to be four, café-turned-restaurants across New South Wales and Brisbane, with each boasting a strong focus on ethical produce served in a no-frills setting.
Three Blue Ducks sparked from an idea between Mark LaBrooy, Chris Sorrell and Sam Reid-Boquist, who shared a love of surf, snow and good food. In 2010, after years of discussion, the three mates found the perfect location in Bronte right next door to where Jeff Bennett had recently opened a pizza shop. “It was just the three guys: one did food, one did coffee and one was on the floor,” says Bennett.
It wasn’t long before Bennett became friends with the boys next door and soon the wall between his pizza shop and Three Blue Ducks was knocked down and the four were in business together. As the venue got busier, they recruited Darren Robertson, former head chef at Tetsuya’s, to help expand the menu and open for dinner.
“From day one, it was just really well received,” says Bennett. “There weren’t a lot of places [at the time] that were offering different specials every day or high-end, restaurant-quality food in a small casual café at café prices.”
The group went on to open Three Blue Ducks at The Farm Byron Bay in 2015 and then Rosebery in 2016, with MasterChef Australia 2012 winner Andy Allen coming on board as a co-owner. Between 2012 and 2014, the group also had a café and restaurant in Falls Creek, Victoria, which operated during the winter months.
The common thread woven throughout the venues is a commitment to ethical food and supporting small farmers and producers. “It’s really about working with what’s available, minimising waste and sourcing produce that’s as organic as possible,” says Bennett.
But high-quality produce comes with high prices, and Bennett admits there are limits on what the venues can charge in such a casual setting.
“Rents go up, food costs go up, power bills go up and staff costs go up, but you can’t keep putting the costs of your dishes up, especially in a place that is so breakfast-focused,” he says. “We’ve probably pushed the envelope as much as anybody and our prices are up there, but we also buy produce other people would never consider buying because of the cost. It’s almost become a joke what we pay for bacon; free-range bacon is not that easy and it’s so expensive. But we’re not going to get bacon from pigs that have been brought up on concrete.”
While some customers still don’t appreciate just how much free-range and organic produce costs, Bennett is beginning to see a shift in consumer mindsets and their willingness to pay top dollar. “People are so much more aware and accepting of a higher price for higher quality and for those decisions that we make,” he says.
Staffing is a challenge for Three Blue Ducks, just as it is across the industry, but the group is aware of the importance of maintaining a positive work culture.
“We’ve been very fortunate and we have a lot of staff that have worked with us for five years or more,” says Bennett. “But it’s just a really tricky industry and people move and go to different places for different reasons.”
In an effort to retain valuable staff members, the business is committed to providing a positive work culture for its staff.
“There’s an induction process and the staff get to know the history of the place and that’s usually conducted by one of the owners,” he says. “We try to make people feel part of something that has a bit of history and something special.”
Alongside training, it’s just as important to reward staff, and Three Blue Ducks does this by throwing staff parties. “We love having good parties. Up here [in Byron Bay] it actually happens quite a bit because of the way this place operates during school holidays; it’s a lot of work and people are really pushed to their limits. So we always do something at the end to say thank you.”
Taking Three Blue Ducks to Brisbane has been a learning curve for the team, given its more commercial environment within the W Hotel, but there’s no doubt the boys’ laidback nature will be well received by the Sunshine State.
“The people at W have been great to work with,” says Bennett. “The day we met them all, the vice-president of Marriott and Starwood luxury brands was visiting, and Mark and I rocked up in board shorts, thongs and a T-shirt and we got walked into a boardroom and everyone was in suits. It was like, ‘Well, what you see is what you get’.
“It’s been really interesting and completely eye-opening. The original Ducks was opened for $75,000 and it was three guys in there doing absolutely everything themselves. What it costs to build a restaurant [now] — there are pieces of equipment in there for more than that.”
Adjusting to a new kitchen layout has been the biggest challenge for the group’s new venture. “We came in quite late in the setup phase and the design of the space was already there, so the kitchen layout is different to what our chefs would want and it’s going to take a whole different kind of management. Otherwise, there hasn’t been a heap of new challenges other than the normal ones of setting up a restaurant.”
While Bennett says nothing is in the works yet, he says there’s definitely potential to continue growing the brand — perhaps even internationally. “We don’t want to keep rolling Three Blue Ducks out and make it look like a franchise or cheapen the brand,” he says. “But if a good opportunity comes up in an area we’re not [already in] then we’d look at that.”
As for a specific location, there’s just one criterion: there must be surf or snow nearby. “We’ve always had visions of New York, Tokyo or Indonesia,” says Bennett. “They’re places we’d like to go.”
Image credit: Nikki To
This article originally appeared in Hospitality‘s May issue. Subscribe here.