With humble beginnings in 2012, the trio behind Hanoi Hannah, Saigon Sally and Tokyo Tina share how they launched, nurtured and expanded their footprint across Melbourne’s hospitality scene, writes Aoife Boothroyd.

“If you told me back then that we’d have all of this growth, all of these employees and all these venues, I would have told you you were dreaming.”

When Simon Blacher together with business partners Paul Nguyen and Nick Coulter decided to open Vietnamese diner Hanoi Hannah in Melbourne’s Windsor, expansion and offshoot brands weren’t exactly at the forefront of their minds.

Meeting behind the bar at St Kilda’s iconic St. Hotel, the trio—now formally known as Commune—made the leap into Melbourne’s restaurant scene in 2012 after identifying a gap in the market for great Vietnamese food. With limited experience in the restaurant game, Blacher is the first to admit that the team didn’t exactly do things by the book, however their inexperience and perseverance is what he believes kept driving them forward, resulting in the handsome portfolio of restaurants that make up Commune today.

“When we opened Hanoi Hannah, we just wanted to keep our heads above water to be honest. We were first timers and were really just learning by doing at that stage. Lucky for us, the restaurant just exploded from day one. We had a really good network of people doing social media and creating a good following, but we were by no means restaurateurs. I actually didn’t even know what a cover was when we opened the restaurant,” Blacher told Hospitality.

Unexpected expansion
Following the success of fast casual diner Hanoi Hannah, the team decided to open a higher-end Vietnamese restaurant, Saigon Sally, in 2013. Next up was Hanoi Hannah Express, a takeaway only version of the original. A further two years down the track, the team opened Japanese-Korean fusion restaurant Tokyo Tina, which operates halfway between the fast casual model of Hanoi Hannah and the higher-end offering of Saigon Sally. Then most recently, Hanoi Hannah Elsternwick opened for business taking Commune’s venue tally up to five.

Given the great success that Hanoi Hannah has enjoyed, the team decided it would be the best of the three venues to replicate. The nature of the fast casual business model meant that scale could be more easily achieved with Hanoi Hannah than Saigon Sally or Tokyo Tina, which attract higher service expectations, demand a different style of restaurant management, and require constant menu tweaking. Although the nature of the model is more simplistic, Blather does admit that the fast casual space isn’t without its challenges.

“The challenges can sometimes outweigh the benefits simply because you are relying on volume to become profitable all the time. We’re fortunate that we are very busy and can manage it, but just because you have a lower price point doesn’t mean that you can skimp on labour. High volume, big menus, and high turnover means your labour costs are actually quite high so you need to do the volume to get through. That said, you now see some pretty heavy hitters doing in and out-style places, which is cool and that’s where the market is going I think; good quality food for a low price point,” he said.

Future plans and maintaining the buzz
As the business continues to grow, the team hasn’t committed to focusing solely on Asian cuisines. As Blacher puts it, “good food is good food” and inspiration for any new concepts will simply follow that ethos. Although each venue has its own unique offering, one common theme that does run between the restaurants is a result of clever branding – an area that Blacher believes is paramount in the restaurant game today. Each venue’s use of alliteration and a female name helps tie the three concepts together and create a strong level of brand recognition across the portfolio. To consistently keep their branding and awareness on point, the group has a dedicated social media manager and specialised PR agency. They are also constantly getting their name out to new audiences by setting up stalls at various festivals and sporting events including the Australian Open. It’s these activities, together with great food and service, that Blacher says keeps customers coming back.

“As we kind of got bigger, we realised that the marketing aspect was imperative. It’s as much a marketing exercise as it is operating a venue these days.”

At a glance

  • When was the business established? Feb 2012
  • Number of locations? 5
  • Number of staff? Approximately 120
  • Best selling menu item at Hanoi Hannah? Pho and rice paper rolls
  • Biggest challenge facing the business in 2017? Maintaining growth without losing focus on the current operation. Continuing to establish “Commune” as a young and unique Melbourne born hospitality group and to explore other avenues of what a hospitality group can do beyond operating venues.

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