Exploding bacon, choking on pizza and the hard road to life lessons in the hospitality business

Posted on Posted in Coffee

Unlike many Restauranteurs, I dove into this business eyes shut and head first. No back up funds. No experience. No business plan and no team. I basically had no clue to what I was doing. But what I had was a vision, a sprinkle of passion, and a whole lot of heart.

..and I worked so hard – God, I worked so hard.

However, I still went under four times, financially. I was so desperate to make ends meet that for a good few months which followed my negative financial position, I was doing dinner service in conjunction with breakfast and lunch as well. That meant a solid sixteen-hour day for me, seven days a week. To give you an idea of what that’s like, my day consisted of; In the morning, (straight after I shopped for produce) from 8am until 4pm I served all day breakfast and lunch. After that, I’d do the orders and the accounting, then I’d rest until 6pm to open for dinner. When the day was over, I’d do all the cleaning and wouldn’t get to sleep until midnight. Not my most proudest moment in business.

Desperate times called for desperate measures. The business was basically on life support. I could’ve easily pulled the plug but didn’t because I had faith – I persevered – But luckily it wasn’t for nothing. We managed to financially break even in the months which followed. I wouldn’t say it was smooth sailing, but the business thrived against all odds. It started to take on a life of it’s own, and I could see a positive trend in the business. However, at the fifteenth month (or so) my business faced an issue to do with human resources, and it effected me more than it should have. Therefore, for physical health and mental health reasons, I decided to cancel dinner service and reevaluated the direction I wanted to take the business.

Despite the slight hardship I went through with the above mentioned issue, I quickly regrouped, and as one door closed another door opened, and amazing people walked through it. Without delay, I rounded up an amazing crew with a collective passion towards the success of the business. We had means, we had motive, and so we readied our ship and took it straight into battling waters.

Initially, we launched with an internet marketing campaign. At the time I was hesitant and concerned that we might not have enough resources to accommodate the campaign, plus the return on investments were really low. Although, realistically, it was worth a try and I had nothing to lose. So I agreed and we ran the campaign.

On the day that our campaign went live, the marketing manager called me to inform that we’ve successfully made upwards of two hundred sales in the first two hours. Then by midday (after the fourth phone call from him), we’d already clocked up four hundred sales; Rejoice! The campaign went on for another two days, and needless to say, we had an amazing response from the public. It was actually phenomenal. As a result, for a solid six months afterwards, the restaurant was packed with customers. We’d easily turn the whole dining floor three times over during breakfast service, moreso on weekends. I remember being so proud to finally put in an order for twenty kilograms of coffee per week with my supplier. A number which isn’t easily reached for your little neighborhood café that’s off the beaten track – It was definitely a personal milestone.

We were cooking so much bacon that in several instances, we had two huge paella pans on top of two wok burners sizzling a never-ending amount of bacon to assist our grill plate. Like Spartans at the hot gates, we had big pan lids as shields, and tongs as spears to control the neverending onslaught from the army of exploding bacon rashers. All jokes aside, it was a huge financial balancing act in order to salvage profits left over from the running costs of the campaign. Everything was closely monitored; every kilogram of bacon, every individual egg. Even down to every gram of coffee was accounted for, to the point where it was a set back if we lost a shot of espresso (which is about twenty-two grams of coffee). The honeymoon was short lived as for a different turn of events. Another wave came and almost capsized our ship. This time, the challenge was so above my head that I seriously believed that it was the end of Duke’s Lounge. So much so that I strategized an exit plan.

Then one day, after close of business, my crew sat me down to comfort me, and proposed to me that they’d do everything in their power to help out with the situation. We brainstormed and a couple of them raised their hands and offered to exchange their labour and expertise for nothing but goodwill and maybe a few beers. They had love for the business, and immense trust in me to keep the ship afloat, to make the right decisions and show them better days. With that trust and respect given to me, I had no other option but to pull up the sails, take the helm and foreward the ship into the eye of the storm. My crew took on most of the day-to-day operations of the business, and my friends helped me out with the administrative work, leaving me with one job to do: Make amazing coffee.

Financially, this was also an all-in move as we reinvested every cent into the business to rapidly build it up and take it as far as we could. Of course, we were left exhausted after a few grueling months of battle, but our morales were high, so we kept fighting, hoping for better days to arrive. (Plenty of ‘business meetings’ at the pub after work also helped kept everyone motivated)

Not long after, I was invited as a guest to the Sydney Morning Herald Good Café Guide awards night of 2012, and truthfully, I wasn’t planning on attending. I was exhausted after work and the last thing I wanted to do was congratulate all the winners while at the same time remind myself of the terrible position I was in, compared to everyone else. But, my dear girlfriend at the time talked me into attending by telling me that I at least network with people in the industry so they know who I am, and consume all the free food and drinks so we didn’t have to worry about dinner.

So there I was, at the awards night, feeling very insecure about myself and my business. I positioned myself near the caterers and ate all the canapés and the craft beers as they came.Then all of a sudden during the awards ceremony, as I was stuffing my face with this gorgeous pizza, Duke’s Lounge was called as one of the winners for the ‘One Cup’ award, an announcement I never thought I’d hear in this lifetime. There was confusion which filled the room before anyone applauded because no one had heard of Duke’s Lounge until that very moment. Hell, I was still confused myself. Best believe me when I say that I almost choked on that pizza which was still making its way down my throat, as I tried to hold down tears of joy at the same time. It wasn’t a pretty sight. I yelled out a ‘woohoo’ and the applause began as people turned to look at me, and for a moment in time I felt like I was sitting on top of the world.

Then I came to a realization – Yes, I’m that new kid in town. Yes, I won that award. Yes, I’m still almost broke, that’s why I’m eating all the canapés because I’d rather not pay for dinner afterwards. But yes, I’m extremely proud of myself because I built this business with my bare hands and I’m finally doing something right with it that people actually love. It was a night I’ll never forget.

Hard work pays off. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Brighter days will come as long as you stick to it. Believe in yourself and others. Myself, and my crew included, gave it everything we got. Blood, sweat and tears. We never backed down even when we faced imminent death. But most importantly, we understood what it meant to became a family. We cried together, we laughed together, and we succeeded together. In hindsight, it was certainly the glory days filled with great life lessons and stories. Even if we didn’t make a cent, it did put us on the map and opened up more opportunities which followed. The memory of it in itself is priceless.

Duke’s Lounge was more than a business. It was a symbol of hope, hard work and unconditional love. We continued on for years to come, growing our family with amazing people who found each other in a small suburb called Randwick.

Thank you for walking through the door, thank you for believing in me, and thank you for believing in the business. Forever grateful, Duke.

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PS, We also won another cup in the Good Café awards the following year, and just for good measure, we kept featuring in many national publications as one of Sydney’s leading café restaurants, too!