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Ask an Expert: Build Your Empire

Ask an Expert: Build Your Empire

The start: Annoying Brother

After slowly building savings, Julien invested in his first café in January 2012, Annoying Brother. That was his first experiment in doing more with less. A minimal turnover meant that every cent counted, so Julien focussed on creating slick systems that minimised wastage.

Two years later, he was starting to get comfortable – and bored – with the business. He sold Annoying Brother for $130k and started sniffing around for his next venture.

Cafe number two:  My Other Brother

With his knowledge, skills and a bit more money in his back pocket, Julien approached a cafe that wasn’t doing as well as it should have. They offered him a 50% share for half the liability. He was hungry and had nothing to lose, so he took it on.

This second cafe, My Other Brother, turned out to be a successful partnership. Following Julien’s instinct for what Melbourne needed and the business systems he’d established in Annoying Brother, the management team reduced overheads and increased profits. Almost obsessive testing allowed Julien to refine his process models, perfecting service and standardising the kitchen.

Using these models, Julien found it easy to open a lot of venues all at once. Although each fit-out and vibe was different, he could essentially copy and paste the POS systems and the kitchen set up.

Owning the supply chain

It seemed a logical step, going from owning cafes into managing the whole supply chain. It took twelve months to plan his offering. With Inglewood Coffee Roasters, he wanted a superb quality product, because supplying a great product helps his customers grow their businesses. That means they buy more coffee, and he grows along with them.

Julien’s advice for future empire-builders

So far, Julien has opened 11 cafés, along with his coffee roastery. With so much experience under his belt, he’s identified nine things that have helped him build his hospo empire.

  1. Empower others. You cannot do it all. You will never grow if you can’t let go. [MOU1] You should be hiring great people who you can trust to manage their part of the business. Put great reporting systems in place and have clear lines of communication. For example, Julien has a venue manager at each site who reports daily to him.

    “Letting go is really, really important. If you don’t, you’ll be working in the business instead of on the business.”

  2.  Create a niche for each venue. If all your restaurants or cafes are the same, you’re competing with yourself – you do need each venue to have their own spot in the market. That doesn’t mean you run off and open a wine bar, a fine-dining restaurant and a casual diner. This is a recipe for disaster – you won’t know how to run all those kinds of business well. The trick? Stick to what you know – cafes, for example – but differentiate each with its brand. Make sure the experience, the fit-out, the menu and the overall vibe of each is offering something totally unique.
  3. Learn to spot (and grab) opportunities. Getting ahead in business is about seeing possibility where others don’t. That might be a rundown café that’s still making pretty good returns, a joint in an area that’s just about to explode with young professional residents, or an unusually quirky or beautiful location. Once you’ve found something that’ll work, be aggressive, act quickly, and grab hold of those opportunities.
  4.  Hire great people and look after them. They are your lifeblood. Julien recommends giving great people a career path – some of his head chefs started as dishwashers. His head roaster started as a barista, a finance manager used to be front-of-house. Keeping those great people, says Julien, has been key. He also focusses on culture. His team has two parties each year where they have “too much” fun, and he avoids hiring people who have values, goals or attitudes that don’t fit.
  5.  Get landlords to contribute to fit-out. Fit-out can be one of your biggest costs. Over the years, Julien has figured out that he could offer to pay a bit more in rent and get the landlord to contribute to sprucing up the place. His general ratio is: for $5000 extra a year in rent, the landlord will be happy to stump up $100k. If you’re “crafty”, says Julian, “you can find the right deal, one that’s mutually beneficial.”
  6. Hand over to the creatives. Once you’ve got great systems, it should be just a matter of slotting them into the new venue. That means you get to the fun bits faster – branding and fit-out. Julien likes having a direction and a name, but then just hands it over to the designers, giving them creative freedom. His advice: don’t stifle people’s creativity or restrict them. He has another warning. While more seats mean more customers, you have to balance that with the needs of the kitchen – the more people you’re serving the more space they’ll need.
  7. Don’t aim for perfection. John Gillem, former Bunnings boss, advises people to ban perfection at work. Perfection, he reckons, is a time-waster. Julien agrees, adding that perfection in one area often means sacrificing quality in others. For example, asking baristas to get the perfect coffee by weighing every shot would mean adding 30 seconds to the process for very little perceivable benefit. His goal is always to find a balance of excellence in all areas, and perfection in none.
  8. Get the systems right. Because Julien has systems for everything, he can establish new cafés faster and train staff more easily. The cafés look different, but they’re essentially running on the same skeleton – the same POS system, the same streamlined work systems – so he can save money and time, and move staff around if needed, too.
  9. Relationships matter. Julien says he’s an act-first, think-later kind of guy, so he looks for partners who are the opposite – and ones he can have tough conversations with. Then it’s a matter of embracing their individuality and taking their advice. The key outtake is that relationships are important. Really important. An exceptional venue only comes when people at every level, from the developer and landlord down to the front-of-house staff, respect each other.

Trust your instincts and work hard

Julien’s new venture out in the suburbs might seem a little out-of-the-box, but for him, it was a no-brainer, with less competition and more parking. The point is that Julien has learned to trust his instincts so he knows an opportunity when he sees it, and his well-oiled café-making machine can spring into action.

It seems counterintuitive, but it’s the solid, consistent and utterly practical side of Julien’s business (the bit that people most often see as boring) that has given him the freedom to take bigger risks and do wildly interesting things. Because he has that foundation of an excellent team and tested systems, success is only a matter of hard work and energy.

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