It seems Perth locals are joining travellers and expats in appreciating the Tony Roma’s experience. Amy French reports.
TONY Roma’s franchisee Harry Djakaria remembers his first experience of the American chain restaurant as a teenager in Jakarta as if it were yesterday – and this experience is exactly what Mr Djakaria wanted to bring to Perth.
“I remember ... that I had someone who opened the door of the restaurant and said ‘welcome to Tony Roma’s’ with a big smile,” Mr Djakaria says.
There was a big glossy menu with an impressive drinks list and the restaurant’s specialty, baby back ribs, which Mr Djakaria knew he wanted even before he looked at the menu.
A measure of Mr Djakaria’s success can be seen by visiting his Perth restaurant in the west end of the city; on a Monday or Tuesday night, when nearly everything else is closed, Tony Roma’s is crowded with patrons.
Mr Djakaria says the city location is partly responsible for the restaurant’s appeal, because expats working in the oil and gas sector want an experience from ‘home’.
And their feedback also helps him to maintain an authentic Tony Roma’s experience, he says.
“We have lovely customers, regular customers and basically we are located in the city and we have a lot of travel-savvy people with the mining companies and the amount of American expats that we have working with our neighbours like Chevron. So they kind of give you feedback and say ‘this is what we expect from a Tony Roma’s’. That for us tells us that we’re doing the right thing,” Mr Djakaria told Gusto.
He also believes the restaurant’s popularity could be because Australians are becoming much more brand aware.
“You travel or you’re on your way to work and you see Gloria Jean’s or an independent coffee shop and you’ve had a good experience at Gloria Jean’s then you’ll go with that,” Mr Djakaria says.
Tony Roma’s is not Mr Djakaria’s first franchise. He has had 10 years in the hospitality industry running four Gloria Jean’s Coffee franchises and a Borders book store, and is making plans to open another Tony Roma’s elsewhere in Australia.
However, his passion for Tony Roma’s is clear when he outlines the four years’ work it took to get it off the ground. Mr Djakaria’s involvement in the business began as a conversation with a close friend in 2004 and culminated in the launch of the restaurant in April 2008 after a careful planning process.
The opening was attended by one of Roma Corporation’s top executives, who was so impressed with Mr Djakaria’s business plan he flew all the way from the US to Perth to see the restaurant.
Mr Djakaria says his friends were sceptical when he first told them he wanted to open an American chain restaurant specialising in ribs at a cost of millions of dollars.
“I basically told them this is something that’s going to be different. But even when I tried to explain that, people said they didn’t think Australians would eat with their hands, with the bones on their plate ... but I didn’t give up at that stage,” he says.
Once construction of the restaurant had started, Mr Djakaria used a test kitchen to trial the rib recipe.
“We managed to get about four gallons of barbeque sauce and did it according to the manuals and recipes so everything was done right,” he says.
“If I hadn’t convinced these guys, we would have had a problem. So I would ring my partner to come to the kitchen to taste the product. They really didn’t get it but at the time I still thought it’s about the whole experience. We had half convinced them.”
According to Mr Djakaria there is no single secret to the success of the restaurant but time has been an important factor.
“This coming April is our third anniversary and I think you need the time to really establish, to get to know your customers, do the grind before you really can be vocal about your product and be a little bit more cheeky ... you know, you should try our food,” he says.
“When you first open there are so many competitors and people know what they want and I guess you can’t really tell the customer our food is better than the other, let them try it first.”
Mr Djakaria says the many repeat customers are the best sellers of Tony Roma’s and, among these is the UWA baseball club, which he sponsors.
“I guess you could sponsor something bigger like Perth Heat and that would be great ... but realistically we want to commit to something smaller. Basically when UWA come in their uniforms it feels like we’re making a difference. It’s just a great feeling,” he says.