How To Fail Successfully with George Calombaris
We are so excited to share with you Beyond The Pass, our new interview and podcast series made for the hospitality industry. In this series we will take you into the minds of successful hospitality entrepreneurs to learn a little bit about what makes them tick, their journey to success and importantly their mindset and attitudes.
In our first interview our Director Dani Venn meet’s with one of Australia’s most recognisable faces and successful hospitality entrepreneurs, George Calombaris. Dani met George through Masterchef back in 2011, but we wanted to catch up with him to learn not only about his business savvy but also his business failures and why George thinks failure is a key ingredient to success. You can subscribe to Beyond The Pass through iTunes or read our short and sweet interview below.
If there is someone you admire in the hospitality industry that you would love us to interview, you can connect with us on Facebook and let us know. Don’t worry, they don’t have to be as famous as George!
George, you have achieved so much success in your life with restaurants, cookbooks, television stardom, ambassador roles, and collaborations with companies like your new frypan range ‘Greek’ for Salt n’ Pepper… but let’s take a few steps back… It seems you’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, I’ve heard rumours that you used to charge kids a fee to pick up their lunch from the school canteen so they didn’t have to line up – true or false?
GC Who have you been speaking to? That is so true. I acted like the middle man, I would charge 5 or 10%, depending on if I liked you or not, then I would have guys that would run and get the order from the canteen and then I would give you your order so you wouldn’t have to go and line up.
Amazing, that’s genius! Where do you think your business savvy has come from? Is it something that was passed down to you or something innate?
GC I grew up around a lot of dad’s businesses that he owned back in the day and that taught me the ethics of working hard, which I think is the most important value. But I also think it’s important to be cunning, in the positive sense of the word, and to be see everything as an opportunity.
DV You’ve had a lot of success and opportunities in your career, but were there time’s when you thought, I’m failing in business and feeling close to giving up?
GC I never thought I was going to give up but in business you walk a very fine line, and a lot of people choose to walk it with a very straight-back mentality and take little risks and that’s great because we need all walks of life. But I’ve chosen to walk that tightrope and occasionally have fallen off, and that’s OK too. Too many people are scared of failure, I embrace failure and use it as an opportunity to drive me, and to make me stronger and faster and wiser. Well, I’m not sure if I am getting any wiser. (Laughs)
So would you say that failure is a crucial part of success?
GC Yes, failure and making mistakes is not a bad thing. But don’t accept mediocrity as being good enough, it’s never good enough. That’s one thing our business is always asking, “How can we make things better?” Especially when the food and experience is at a much higher value proposition, we’re always striving to be better. And I love this! After 20 years in the industry, I feel renewed even after some fairly epic failures along the way. I’m 100% better for them.
There are so many hospitality businesses out there that perhaps don’t push themselves and they don’t reach their full potential, resulting in closing down and ultimately ‘failing’. Why do you think this is?
GC There’s no question about it that people have this assumption that I am successful because I’ve been on TV but that’s rubbish, because at the end of the day if you are not good, and the offering that you are giving to your customer isn’t up to scratch, the customers are not going to come back. We are constantly working on what we are doing tomorrow, not what we are doing today, and how we can make tomorrow better.
It’s also so important to listen, the minute as an owner you become defensive about your product and say that the customer doesn’t know what they are talking about, that’s the minute it’s going to go pear shaped. Don’t get me wrong, you have to stick to your beliefs and values, but you have to listen, and a lot of people fail because they don’t listen.
For people that are starting out a new hospitality business, what are the key areas that they should be focusing on?
GC There’s no area that isn’t more important then the other, every single thing is important. And I say to anyone that wants to open their own restaurant, café, canteen, whatever, it’s all about getting as much knowledge as you can under your belt before you open those doors
It’s also important that any great business has a great business culture. You can have the most amazing fit out or spend a lot of money on an amazing kitchen, but your business needs to have the right culture, and it comes from the people within the place. At times in the past we have had poor culture, staff retention was high, people didn’t want to work for me, it was horrible.
What do you think changed?
GC I think it changed because I changed. I realised the customers are not the customers that walk through the door, the customers are my staff, and my whole outlook on my business’s now is all about valuing my staff.
To be honest the customers that walk through the door are my staff’s problem to worry about, but if I look after my staff, they will look after our customers. I think my whole mindset has changed dramatically – leading with an iron fist does not work – instead we lead by example, we respect each other, we have fun, we enjoy our job, and if I enjoy it whilst I am at the restaurant, then they (staff) will enjoy it too. But if I come in and I am rude and grumpy and egotistical, then it’s a recipe for disaster and your customers can pick up on that energy straight away.
Customers can now be a lot more vocal online with social media platforms and review sites like Zomato, how has this changed the way you run your business?
GC There are so many digital mediums now where customers can express their opinion and I am all for that, it’s great that people can actively have a voice online and talk about their food experiences.
I don’t get caught up in the review side of things anymore, but I do get a little annoyed when untrained people talk about things they are not qualified to talk about and they don’t understand the ramifications it might have on small businesses in the suburbs who are just trying to make a living. Matt Preston didn’t become a top journalist because he just fluked it, it took him years and years and years of…
GC Eating!! And eating and eating…
Well, you can’t tell! (laughs)
So you’ve changed a lot in the way that you eat and your lifestyle, what are some of the things you’ve changed that make you feel better?
GC Yeah, I don’t accept waking up and not having breakfast, I don’t accept not sitting down and eating properly at lunchtime and having a good dinner. Where before I was that committed to cooking for others that I didn’t care about myself. Now my attitude has filtered right through the whole business, staff food menu’s need to be approved every week, they might get one ‘fun day’ that’s a little bit junky but the rest of the week is great protein, carbohydrates and vegetables.
I think that’s so important, there’s so many restaurateurs that neglect the staff meal when your staff are the frontline of your restaurant, if they are not eating good food, they are not going to perform well.
GC We will not tolerate bad food put up for staff. Before we may have served a big bowl of pasta, there’s nothing wrong with a big bowl of pasta, but not every night. Food needs to be balanced and it needs to contain slow releasing carbs that are going to get them through the night.
So what’s next for you George, will we see Jimmy Grants in more Australian suburbs or will we see Hellenic Republic go abroad?
GC Potential for all of those things! We’ve just opened Jimmy Grants in Queensland, that’s our first foray outside of Melbourne. We’re really excited to see Jimmy grow.
And finally you have a pretty amazing mum Mary, who makes a mean moussaka, what are some of her words of wisdom that have stuck with you throughout your life?
GC I don’t think its words of wisdom as such but more actions, she taught me this sense of generosity of spirit when it comes to food and that food is such a powerful medium to make people happy.