Neil Perry on the challenge of hospitality

Wednesday 11 April 2018
Luke Keioskie's picture
The Shaker

Chef Neil Perry is no stranger to hospitality.  The well-known master of cuisine opens up about his career, the industry he loves and how he stays inspired in an ever-changing landscape.

Tell us a bit about your journey in business so far. 
Hospitality became a business for me beyond the walls of restaurants very early on. I guess you could say that I diversified beyond cooking and kitchens to everything from writing cookbooks to participating in TV shows and consulting. My Rockpool Consulting business creates menus for Qantas’ First, Business and Premium Economy in-flight meals and lounges.

I progressed from Chef to businessman in my own right when I opened Rockpool in February 1989 with my cousin and business partner Trish Richards. A journey of blood sweat and tears – and a whole lot of fun in between – saw Rockpool Group expand to include three Rockpool Bar & Grills, two Spice Temples, Rosetta in Melbourne, a portfolio of Burger Project fast-casual eateries and a whole swag of Good Food Guide Chef’s Hats and other accolades along the way. I relinquished control of the group in late 2016 and it’s now owned by Quadrant Private Equity and operates as Rockpool Dining Group. As Culinary Director I’m still intricately and passionately involved and play a hands-on role in the restaurants on a daily basis. In some ways I had to let my baby go, in order to let it further expand and flourish.

Did you always see yourself in the hospitality industry, running businesses?
I inherited my passion for food and hospitality from my father. A butcher, a fisherman and a gardener, he loved everything about food and completely immersed himself in it. You could say that I followed him head-first into this food obsession. My hospitality career began as manager of Sails Restaurant in Rose Bay. The chef had a parachuting accident which catapulted me into the kitchen. From that day, I was happy to stay in the kitchen. In 1978 a book called Great Chefs of France was published and I couldn’t stop reading it. As I read that book, I dreamed of one day having my own place.

What do you see the biggest challenges facing the hospitality industry in Australia?
The sheer growth of the industry and remaining competitive in the face of that expansion is a challenge, also finding the staff we need to fuel our growth.

How do you overcome these challenges in your business?
In terms of staying competitive, we constantly strive to stay ahead of the curve and offer experiences that customers can’t find elsewhere. Our new Mexican restaurant Bar Patrón by Rockpool at Circular Quay in Sydney is a good example of this. It’s a world-first collaboration with Patrón Tequila which is the exclusive tequila on the menu. There is no other Bar Patrón anywhere else in the world. It’s a premium experience at an accessible price point and something very different to what’s already on offer in Australia. 

We also need to reimagine and reinvent the customer experience at our longer-standing restaurants. At the fast-casual end of the dining spectrum we’re upping our Burger Project game with the launch of Burger Project Black Label in Sydney around the end of May. Think of Black Label as a hybrid of our premium Rockpool Bar & Grill burgers, and our everyday Burger Project favourites, alongside a premium breakfast menu featuring top local produce including Sonoma bread and pastries and Mecca coffee, as well as an enriched bar focus, including ‘adult shakes’, craft beers, wines and whiskies, and an impressive range of coffee through cocktails. It’s casual rather than fast casual service.

On staffing, we are committed to learning and development and to promoting star staff into bigger roles, thereby we retain talent and take our most experienced employees on a journey of professional development. They themselves become leaders who train up new employees, so it’s a kind of virtuous circle of recruitment, promotion and retention. We do have a shortfall of trained and skilled managers and chefs in Australia, so it’s always a struggle to find staff. We work with a number of recruiters, employees are incentivised to introduce new recruits and we hope our name and good reputation helps us stand out from the crowd.

What importance do you place on innovation and disruption in your business?
It’s certainly very important. Rockpool Dining Group wouldn’t be where it is today with over 60 restaurants and 16 brands across four states if we didn’t innovate constantly and occasionally disrupt. Innovation comes in lots of guises, from the customer experiences I mentioned previously at the likes of Burger Project and Bar Patrón by Rockpool, to the technology we use behind the scenes, and the partners we collaborate with. In late 2017 we became the exclusive restaurant partner of Qantas Frequent Flyer to enable our customers to earn and use Frequent Flyer points at all of our venues, which was both an innovative and competitive move to encourage customers to return to our venues and explore our full restaurant portfolio. We were also the early adopters of restaurant delivery services such as Deliveroo and UberEats to enable customers to enjoy our menus at home or elsewhere.

How do you drive innovation? Do you have a process?
I don’t know about processes, but we do have an innovation-friendly workplace where we’re open to ideas and encourage team players to think outside the square and feedback their suggestions. Our CEO Thomas Pash has an open door policy, so team members can drop by or reach out to him any time. Similarly, in the restaurants I encourage the culinary and front of house teams to think for themselves, question the everyday, and apply new ideas that keep us ahead of the curve.

Working in business and hospitality is tough – what’s kept you strong on a day-to-day basis?
I guess this was my destiny and that in itself has kept me strong. This is my place in the world. I own that and the pressures that come with it. My families have also kept me strong. I say families because I have my culinary family and front of house teams that are on this journey with me. Mentoring and inspiring them, and knowing that in doing so I am contributing to the future up-keep and growth of Australia’s incredible culinary heritage, keeps me strong. But also my wife Sam and three lovely daughters – their love, support and appreciation of the Perry culinary legacy keep me strong every single day.

What are the big lessons that you’ve learnt so far?
Really to learn the most from every mistake, they are much more valuable than a triumph. Also to work with the best people in the room and never let your ego get in the way. It’s much easier to be successful when you work with great people. Also I would say that sweating the detail is super important, and making sure you care about the people who work for you and the people who make it all possible the customers

What could other industries learn from the hospitality industry?
I think the most important traits are the sense of generosity and nurturing that most hospitality people seem to have, all industries can benefit from caring about the human side of their business.