Sean Golding on the true cost of dining out.
Over four years ago I asked Shepherd Elliott if he would open a restaurant with me. I’d never owned a restaurant or even run one before, but I knew this guy’s talents needed to be showcased beyond his excellent, but modest, café offering which was consuming him more and more every day. I also needed to challenge myself to see if I could do something much more difficult and complex compared to my reasonably solid and, for the most part, successful bar. Luckily Shep said yes and we built Shepherd Restaurant. The name was my idea; after all he was the reason for my motivation and perhaps both of our misguided ambitions.
We designed and built Shepherd together. We had a couple of friends who were good builders to help us with the tricky stuff, but largely we were on the tools for three months, learning as we went. Shep even shot the nail gun into our brand new floor more than once while honing his tradie skills. Of course, before all this started we needed a place to lease, an understanding, cooperative landlord, the consent of four body corporates and some money! Garnering any one of the above is incredibly difficult but persistence and compromise got us there in the end. I had worked extremely hard to establish a great relationship with my current landlord and also had invested sincerely in our neighbourhood taking into account the concerns of residents and other business owners.
As much as I had been building a strong foundation for the practical side of our business, Shep had been forging strong relationships with his suppliers, producers and, of course, his patrons. Shep’s access to the highest-quality ingredients is the starting point for him to express himself authentically to his customers and it’s perhaps the most critical part of owning the restaurant we wanted to have. It had to be good, very good, and we knew that if we could not execute the core values of our vision then we would always feel fraudulent and unsatisfactory. These exceptional ingredients cost more, they are harder to get and are always in limited supply but ultimately we knew no compromises would be taken.
We always wanted to make the Shepherd offering accessible, non-pious and an ultimately nourishing experience, but when we first opened we incorrectly and unnecessarily used pricing to get people in the door. Because it was busy all the time we thought we had nailed it. We were a much larger restaurant back then, too, so it took a lot of people to create a critical mass and even more to fill it and a restaurant needs to feel busy to feel good. When we could not fill it regularly we soon realised that in that format it would be unsustainable and, ultimately, too difficult to maintain. After searching our souls we realised that in the end people were coming because the food and service was genuinely good, there was real care and attention to every detail and patrons wanted to be a part of that experience. So, on the tools we went again and reconfigured the entire restaurant to give us the ultimate platform, a smaller, more focussed offering, and one in which we could control every aspect precisely including the price.
Thank f… it worked!
Moving our prices up – to actually get closer to prosperity than just surviving – gave us more confidence in our abilities and made us look inward instead of worrying about what other places were doing and how busy they were or were not. This confidence translated to the entire dining experience; you could taste it in every dish, you could feel it in the service and you could sense it when you walked in. All of sudden we had become the restaurant we always wanted to be and it came from just being honest about what we wanted and how much it should actually cost to eat here. Being able to make assertive decisions about staffing, infrastructure and ingredients translated directly into a better restaurant for us and our customers.
Every time we adjust pricing it’s still not without anxiety and it’s never flippant. We want to be able to deliver an outstanding experience and we now understand that believing in the public’s exploration of quality will always outweigh those looking for a bargain or something mediocre. I suspect in other restaurants with similar ideologies, every dollar earned is spent on that restaurant and that has to be a great thing. I would always choose a restaurant that puts the customer’s experience first without compromising essence and character. Believing in what we are striving for and remembering why we built it has directly controlled the final experience and that experience is worth every dollar that is spent and more. The real value is what has been created and executed in front of the customer.
Eating out can be expensive or cheap but it must be worthwhile either way. Paying a fair amount of money for something good is the most positive thing the public can do for the restaurant industry. What is ‘fair’ and what is ‘good’ is of course completely subjective, but I hope if the public do a little digging into a restaurant’s pedigree they will quickly work out what is good value for money.