Burger chain Grill’d is turning eight this year and its 39-year-old founder, Simon Crowe, is still searching for perfection.
Having turned over $57 million in the last financial year, Grill’d has the largest number of gourmet burger restaurants in Australia, but Crowe says the focus remains on quality, not quantity.
He says discounting and special of the month deals are not on the menu, but maintaining franchisee quality and expanding in Perth and Sydney are high on the agenda.
There’s been a whole bunch of gourmet burger chains popping up over the past few years. Do you think the market’s saturated now?
I think the category of burgers in Australia has been busted for so long. We’re trying to change consumer habits and actually debunk the myth that burgers are bad for you. I think we’re trying to do that legitimately, honestly, locally and with integrity.
It’s not unusual for there to be more than one player in any marketplace; in the States if you look at any marketplace there with 300 million people, they can have small niches but those small niches might represent 20 or 50 million people per niche and it just doesn’t work that way in Australia. So we generally have a couple of strong players and then generally lots of rats and mice.
In our case, we’re trying to focus very much on our brand and our people and obviously our product and if we keep doing that then, yes, there will be competitors popping up.
I think there will be more and more, but the reality is it’s a lot harder than people actually think and if they do want to grow I think they’ll find it challenging in the long run because you have to support that growth with the right infrastructure, the right people, the right systems and all that is pretty expensive upfront.
But look, there’s no question that every category that’s successful has copycats. We’re happy to be somebody that is at the forefront of the healthy burger revolution and we don’t despise them by any means, but we are certainly looking forward and trying to focus on our game.
And often I think their forward focus is only Grill’d so if that’s the case then we just have to keep improving.
You’re the biggest of your kind?
Well certainly in restaurant numbers we are the biggest, but we very much have a philosophy that our growth is not about restaurant numbers it’s actually about staying true to our roots and to our values and actually ensuring that through growth we don’t lose our soul or become only a commercial vehicle.
There’s no question food in this country is a difficult challenge because of the decentralised population base and also there’s the higher rental and to some degree labour cost.
Scalability in food is pretty challenging and most people when they’ve tried to scale a business up have very much dumbed it down – that’s categorically not what we’ll do. If we have to take the foot off the growth pedal then I’m more than happy to do that such that we don’t compromise our longer-term brand proposition and our values and our ethos.
We’ve discussed some of the changes Grill’d has introduced over the years: serving alcohol, selling kids’ meals and entrees, and table service. What have been the most successful changes you’ve initiated?
I’ll be very clear, there are lots of things we need to improve in our business. There are lots of things that I look at and want to either minimally or radically improve on because we’re always trying to chase that impossible, which is perfection.
We’re eight years old in March, which I hate stating because I want to be slightly roguish and anti-establishment to some degree; respectful but anti-establishment.
Our job is very much about evolving and pleasingly we haven’t had to revolutionise or radically change our menu over time.
Everything’s been a layer or an evolution and I think that’s the key to our success.
The Grill’d experience is actually by default built up of many layers: its sounds, its smell, its theatre, its ambiance, its temperature, its lighting, its music, its service – and those things combined equal something that’s quite powerful and magnetic.
When we get it right, then the challenge is to get it right consistently.
Yes, there’ve been blips along the way but nothing that’s actually seen us jump 10 or 15 or 20% overnight. And again I think that’s symptomatic of getting the foundations reasonably strong from the get-go and actually building off that, knowing that in a brand or a business like ours it’s bottom up, not top down.
So the layers don’t necessarily deliver immediate results overnight but they do deliver sustainable results over time.
Tell us about some of those blips then.
More recently we’ve introduced steak sandwiches and salads, I can’t remember if they were on the menu when we spoke to you. We’re actually going to evolve our salads further again later this year.
We’re introducing a new business model. We’ve moved from strips in suburbs to shopping centres and now we’ve evolved our business into CBD locations.
We also ensure that the service proposition has been dialled up and we’re focusing more on the restaurant floor so we’re engaging our customers a lot more than we used to. And we’re about to introduce three new burgers at the end of March [chicken and lamb] that continues the evolution around our food credibility and our provedore claims.
But, again, we don’t do specials for the month because that’s generally speaking fast foodesque. We’d much prefer to get the service component right and actually know our customers by name than we would try and drag new customers in the door screaming from the rafters, ‘look at us, look at us’ and/or discounting.
Neither of those two things are part of our repertoire.
So what have you learned over the past few years, through the GFC and beyond?
The GFC was probably something I talked about a lot more than it having an impact especially in our business.
I think I was probably jealous when the government was handing out money left, right and centre that fashion retail went through the roof for a while there and disposable income was what people were spending.
But pleasingly we’re not a discretionary spend, we’re more of a staple and when everyone stopped spending and those retailers then went backwards very, very quickly, our business kept on ticking along.
I don’t think we have a volatile business, I don’t think we have peaks and troughs; we’re reasonably stable and reasonably steady so that’s a positive thing from a management perspective.
It’s a positive thing as it relates to longevity and we’re trying to be a brand and a business that we’re proud of 15 years from now. Obviously each step needs to be taken in a considered fashion and often speed and a sense of urgency is something that we need to be focused on but we’re not trying to do that at the expense of the long-term brand play.
What’s your breakdown then between franchises?
We’re almost 60% company actually, which is quite rare. So we’ve got 51 restaurants and 29 of those are company owned therefore 22 are obviously franchised.
In fact, we’ve only got, I think, 13 franchise partners in our network because the guys and girls that we have chosen are generally people who are very wedded to Grill’d and they’re getting a great return on investment. We’ve been keen to ensure that our relationships build over time and many of those guys have moved from one to two restaurants.
We’re very keen to ensure that growth is part of the franchise development, but we’re also very cognisant that a bad egg does damage so we’re pretty particular about the recruitment process that we undertake, and then we’re also very careful and conscious about the site selection that we undertake thereafter.
Still, you are looking to increase franchise numbers?
No question. I think one thing that’s been pleasing for us is expanding our geographic reach to include all states bar the Northern Territory and South Australia. We’ve actually got good growth in terms of restaurant numbers and we desperately want to make sure that those people, be it company or franchise, are representing our brand really well.
So in states where we are less mature, particularly Perth, particularly Sydney then we’re incredibly keen to get new franchise partners into our family.
You mentioned ownership before, has there been any change in ownership since you started?
No, it hasn’t been, which is quite pleasing. We’ve been steady as she goes; I’ve 60%, Geoff Bainbridge’s got 20% and Simon McNamara’s also got 20%. So Geoff’s active in the business, Simon’s a shareholder but the three of us have been founding shareholders from the get go.
And how about overseas expansion, is that on the cards?
There’s no question that if I could write my own ticket, taking a brand, an Australian influenced or personality driven brand overseas would be something that I’d be super proud of.
I think when you take the Australian out of Australia, we become far more Australian.
I once had a job working for Foster’s in the States and I was the brand manager for North America, and if we had been promoting or positioning Foster’s in a more contemporary context then I think I’d have almost the dream job. In fact, I was almost selling Australia in a bottle – the only problem is I didn’t appreciate or respect the way we were selling Australia. Back then it was more Crocodile Dundee-esque and that probably gave me some frustrations.
The dream ticket would be to say, ‘let’s take Grill’d overseas’ but we’re also very focused about what we do.
Whilst there have been many things that have come across our table in regards to brand flankers and what might be other business, we’ve stayed true to our purpose because we don’t think that our journey is other than near its start.
So, again, once upon a time I thought I could have myself and Grill’d as two separate entities. I think any founder gets passionate and very involved in their business and there’s certainly a love affair that consumes too much of them, but I also think if that’s the case and it is that then I’d like to be proud of what we create.
So I’d prefer to focus on one thing and do it very well than to spread ourselves too thin.