Russell Blaikie goes ‘Underground’ in his latest business venture. Carolyn Herbert reports.
MUST Wine Bar co-founder and chef Russell Blaikie has embarked on expanding the Must brand into the retail arena by starting up his third business, Must Underground, an online premium wine club that sells Must’s range of imported European wines to the public.
It was Mr Blaikie’s love of French fare that inspired him to join forces with Queens Tavern owner and Matilda Bay Brewing founder, Gary Gosatti, in 2001 to set up Must Wine Bar.
Mr Blaikie, a WA Business News 40under40 finalist, had worked as a chef for more than 20 years in some of the world’s top Michelin-star restaurants, before returning to Perth in 1991 to manage and work as head chef at 44 King Street in Perth.
Mr Blaikie decided to change career focus in the late 1990s to work as the product development manager for Dome Coffees, only to be made redundant in 2000.
“When I was made redundant from Dome, I knew that I wanted to get back into the hurly burly of running a restaurant,” Mr Blaikie says.
He told Gusto that, while on a working trip to France, he became inspired to learn about French food and complete his training in the area.
“We stayed with a wine négociant (wine merchant) in Burgundy, and after having a bistro meal in Dijon I was overwhelmed by the experience and decided at that point I was going to open a French bistro one day,” Mr Blaikie says.
“Gary [Gosatti] was a partner in Dome and 44 King Street and I knew that he was planning to set up a French bistro, so I said ‘I’m in’ because my whole life has revolved around French food, it has been my love, my passion, and my training.”
Once the Highgate restaurant was established, Messrs Balikie and Gosatti wanted to expand the Must brand further, and so opened Must Margaret River in 2009.
“We wanted to expand the brand and open another venue, we did look in Perth but an opportunity came up in Margaret River and seeing as Gary lives in Margaret River it seemed like the natural decision.” Mr Blaikie says.
However, there were challenges associated with setting up Must outside of the city.
“We had some challenges in finding our place in the Margaret River market, because it does take a little time to gain the confidence of the local market,” he says.
“But we would like to think that we have worked very hard in supporting local trade and they have been really supportive of us.”
While there was still a focus on providing traditional French bistro food at Must Margaret River, Mr Blaikie told Gusto it was important to tailor the restaurant to suit the relaxed, holiday atmosphere of the area.
“It differs in the sense that we cater to a tourism market and to a market that is a lot more casual. The front part of the restaurant is all casual seating, where you can drop in wearing your board shorts and thongs and have a beer or a burger,” he says.
It was after opening Must Margaret River, Mr Blaikie says, that he and Mr Gosatti began discussing further opportunities to develop the Must brand in a retail sense, particularly allowing customers to have greater access to wines from Europe.
“We applied and succeeded in obtaining a tavern licence six months ago and that meant we could hatch the plan for Must Underground, our new wine retail business giving customers ‘the key to our cellar’,” Mr Blaikie told Gusto.
Must Underground sells wine to customers in-house and online, with diners able to buy two bottles of wine to take home or a larger quantity via the website.
Along with maintaining top-quality bistro dining at the restaurants, Mr Blaikie says Must Underground will target the corporate market by supplying wine to companies for entertainment purposes or to use as gifts.
“We see a great opportunity to tap into a corporate market with a wine list and a knowledge base that will really excite people that enjoy their wine. So rather than ring up a bottle shop, companies can give us a budget, tell us what they like and we will fulfill it.”