with Neil Perry, The Rockpool Group, Chief Brand & Culinary Officer
Calling Neil Perry a chef is like calling a croissant a bread roll. While other chefs develop a style and stick to it, Perry continually surprised with new cuisines, advancing, anticipating or creating Australian food fashions. He has triumphed over the fickleness of Australia’s dining scene with his forward thinking, selling his portfolio of restaurants to Quadrant Private Equity-backed Urban Purveyor Group, creating the Rockpool Dining Group and giving him the kind of financial backing that other chefs only ever dream of. He has become the co-ordinator for Qantas Flight Catering, authored ten books and presented four television series. And in 2013, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia in the General Division for significant service to the community as a benefactor of, and fundraiser for, charities and as a chef and restaurateur.
It all began with something very simple, Perry’s love for food and a school that enabled him to play rugby. “Essentially, restaurants are very similar. If you can't get everyone to play on the team, and play for the one goal, you can be in serious trouble,” he states.
”Failure teaches you about a hundred times more than success does”
Not every Neil Perry undertaking has flourished, and that includes some restaurants in the ‘90s that didn’t take off. “So, we really zeroed in and focused in on what those learnings were and we recognised the things that we'd done wrong. A lot of it was not to do with arrogance, but to do with naivety. We thought that just doing good food and great service was enough, but we learned the hard way that you have to have the whole package to make it work,” Perry explains.
“The big challenge for us was that we picked poor sites and the old adage, ‘location, location, location,’ really applies in restaurants. When you layer a great site with great food, great service, a fantastic catchment of customers and add a few sprinkles of luck over the top, you've usually got a successful business.”
“Knowing what the customer wants”
One of the great lessons Perry learned through failing was to put his customers wants first. “When I changed Rockpool to Rockpool Fish, I was really changing it for myself and what my customers told me is they really didn't want me to change. I learned that after twenty-five years it's really hard for people to get into their head that you want to change a concept. So, we very quickly changed it back and got the successful restaurant running again.”
“The secret sauce in restaurants is?”
“The people,” Perry states. “The people that you employ and the way that you get them to 'drink the Koolaid' and believe in what you believe in. You've got to have people working for you who really understand the philosophy. Understand what you're trying to achieve and really embody that every day. Because it’s easy to build incredible places, but it's the people that bring them to life.”
The other essential ingredient, he adds, is having everything ready. “So, it’s about caring about the projects, caring about our suppliers, all our staff caring about each other so they're working as a team. Us caring about the environment and the community. All of these things have to be absolutely ready. Unless you've got that foundation, you just can't get it right.”
“Keep up or be forgotten”
“Technology is massive in the business now,” Perry states. “Competition is massive in the business. Industrial relations are massive in the business. Immigration is massive in the business. Now, you have to have a kind of political savvy to be working through everything that you possibly can - talking to governments, talking to oppositions, trying to make sure that the industry itself can thrive. Once upon a time, I thought I could just cook well and that was enough. Now I have to understand so many different rules and regulations about the way that the restaurant business works.”
“Scouring the world for opportunities”
Rockpool is at a point where opportunities come to it. Assessing these is The Rockpool Dining Group executive management, the Board of Leadership team. The Board has another function too. “If you don't have that leadership team inspiring, mentoring, growing, holding on to talent, making sure that the talented people come to our restaurant group, you can’t flourish,” Perry comments. “You've got to keep driving the ship in one direction, so those guys have all got their hand on the rudder and they're all pushing really hard.”
What makes Rockpool Future Fit?
“Data puts us ahead,” Perry says decisively. “The way we stay relevant, when people are always changing and evolving, is to do exactly the same. Data enables that. The way we find new areas is to use consultants to track hot spots. And we never rest on our laurels. One of the fundamental philosophies of this group is, to ‘do the best you can today and try harder tomorrow.’ We're always trying to give people more than they're asking for. But most importantly, we're evolving continually. Even Rockpool Bar and Grill is a different place to what it was 10 years ago. The DNA is the same, but we are continually evolving to keep up with how our customers are learning.”
Data also enables us to “talk to” our customers. We’ve found that by really being able to mine the most amount of data from our customers, we've been able to see where they are, where they're going. We can see their preferences. We know which of our businesses they love the most and we can tell them about these specifically. We know the kinds of offers they want, and the kinds of things that they're into, by looking at their behaviour - and provide them.” Rockpool uses this data to budget, Perry adds, which is critically important in a volatile industry.
What does Future Fit mean to Neil Perry?
Being future-fit means being ready for change for Perry. Being able to embrace change, like new technology. And continuous learning is just paramount, he adds. “If you feel you've stopped learning, you've hit retirement.”
“I also have a philosophy at the restaurant: We're growing young cooks. We're getting young waiters to become managers. I want every single person who works at the Rockpool Dining Group to be a better person because they worked with this restaurant group. That’s really important to me.”