Name: Ben Thomas
Company: Banana Blossom
Based: New South Wales
Ben Thomas says being a chef is a lot like being an entrepreneur; there is often an underlying dream to steer your own ship.
“I think when you’re cheffing, you always want to do your own thing and have control – it’s always a chef’s dream to have your own restaurant,” Thomas tells SmartCompany.
However, it wasn’t a dream come true when Thomas and his wife Nat opened their first Thai restaurant, Banana Blossom, in Cremorne, New South Wales, in 2004.
The pair had successfully proved themselves selling out of their signature crispy coconut chicken salad at Sydney’s night noodle markets, but after the Global Financial Crisis hit and the restaurant industry took a downturn, the couple found themselves back at square one in 2008.
“We had no money left, we were pretty much broke. So we just took some time to work on the concept and it became what it is today,” Thomas says.
Today, Banana Blossom is a network of three hugely popular Asian-inspired salad restaurants in New South Wales – a concept Thomas had not thought possible when declaring to his mother as a child he would own a burger shop, or when he was cooking steaks at a pub in the Gold Coast hinterland as a part of his apprenticeship.
“Everybody totally changed how they were eating, especially the younger generation, everyone is really health conscious these days,” he says.
But Thomas says it was catching on early to the healthy eating trend with their tweaked new salad concept at the start of 2009, which helped Banana Blossom ride the wave of success.
“Our timing was perfect,” he says.
“We had that time off to get the concept right and the flavours perfect. We had the offering people were looking for – gluten free, free range chicken.”
Fast forward six years and Banana Blossom’s three stores in Mona Vale, Manly and Bondi now collectively turn over more than $2 million annually and employ close to 30 staff.
Thomas chats to SmartCompany about why being an entrepreneur is harder than being a chef and what his response is to the multiple offers to franchise his business.
Thomas is up at 5am four mornings a week to hit the Flemington Market to source the freshest produce for the stores.
“It’s all about using the freshest ingredients, we would never use crap,” he laughs, saying his background as a chef means as a business owner he’ll never put his name to something he’s not proud of.
“You do have to have pride in what you put up,” he says.
After the three stores are stocked up with fresh produce, protein and sauces, Thomas will hit one of the stores for prep and then help out with the lunch rush.
Banana Blossom has many loyal customers; some eat lunch there almost every day.
“When you think about it, people have their favourite pie shop, but they’re not going to eat pies five days a week. With salads, it’s healthy and it’s guilt free, so we have plenty of people that come in every day,” Thomas says.
While Thomas is at one store, Nat will visit one of the others. He says their business partnership is built on communication, making an effort to spend time outside of the business and, he laughs, “tolerance”.
“She’s the really driven one, I have to keep up with her energy,” he says.
“But we both know we’re working towards a goal and we don’t mind if we have to work that bit harder right now to make something really successful down the track.”
Thomas says as a business owner, there are a lot more balls in the air at any one time than when he was a chef.
“It’s definitely more challenging being a business owner. With being chef, you’ve got to control your kitchen, your food costs and staff costs. It’s the same scenario as a business owner but you also have public relations, marketing, media, thinking about staff and incentives and regulations. Not to mention the accounting,” he says.
“The other thing with a business is looking at future markets and coming up with new concepts and ideas. It’s similar to being a chef, but on a much grander scale.”
True foodies, the couple love to visit new restaurants and show their kids different cuisines in their leisure time.
“As a chef, I never got to go out on a Saturday, so I love any excuse to go out for dinner now,” Thomas says.
Thomas also likes to make time to exercise, play a round of golf or go surfing.
“You’ve definitely got to set time aside out of the business,” he says.
“You’ve got to have a work-life balance or it all falls apart. I mean, what’s the point of work otherwise? You’ve got to enjoy your life.”
Thomas says after opening its third store in Bondi six months ago, Banana Blossom is now “really just starting to hit the accelerator”.
His plans for the business include a range of pre-packaged salads, which already has interest from IGA supermarkets and several Australian airlines.
“We’ll also probably open a new store next year. We want to get to ten stores in Sydney alongside the pre-packaged salad business.”
And Thomas says he gets plenty of calls from investors who see an opportunity to franchise the successful concept.
“People have been asking so much to franchise, but we’re not really keen at the moment,” he says.
“The thing is with franchising, you’re answering to other people and not yourself. I think a lot of franchises lose direction and it becomes about profits rather than products. That’s not what we represent, we don’t like second best – our whole brand is about quality.”
While Thomas admits he and Nat have an exit plan to eventually sell the business once it’s built up into a larger operation, he says there is still plenty of opportunity in the healthy eating market to capitalise on.
“I think a lot of people are going back to their roots and learning about what they can and can’t eat,” he says.
“We get so much positive feedback, I feel good about serving it. I don’t mean to sound like a wanker, but it’s nice to have the opportunity to feed people well.”