20/09/2018 - 10:11

Haunold driven by quest for quality

20/09/2018 - 10:11

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People, not produce, provide the biggest challenge for Wills Domain and its owner, former 40under40 award winner Darren Haunold.

Haunold driven by quest for quality
Darren Haunold says there is a shortage of skilled hospitality workers to support the fine dining industry. Photo: Wills Domain

People, not produce, provide the biggest challenge for Wills Domain and its owner, Darren Haunold.

Darren Haunold certainly isn’t afraid to take the path less travelled, as evidenced by his decision to purchase and manage Wills Domain in 2000 with just one year’s hands-on experience as a vineyard manager.

Despite his relative inexperience the business thrived, to the point where Mr Haunold’s part in the winery’s success earned him a 40under40 First Amongst Equals in 2004.

That recognition served as confirmation for Mr Haunold that his penchant for making bold decisions was working, although he acknowledges the award came after he had given his “best shot at convincing someone I knew what I was doing”.

The opening of a cellar door for the business in 2005 put a stamp on the brand at its Yallingup site, after the purchase of a neighbouring property.

“With the cellar door, it was all about the face of the business, the brand, and getting it out there,” Mr Haunold told Business News.

“Taking the brand to the world, and aspirational export was a big part of our marketing.”

The world, however, was soon to confront the GFC, and again Mr Haunold faced an all-or-nothing choice – sink or swim.

“We made the decision to buck the trend of the crisis in the hope we would see a recovery,” he said.

Among the plans developed during the downturn was the expansion of the winery to include a much larger restaurant, which was completed in 2013.

It was a costly, high-risk exercise that ultimately paid off.

“It was probably the best thing we ever did for the business,” Mr Haunold said.

“We became a much more serious player in the Margaret River wine industry as far as a tourism site was concerned. We were getting great visitation, great brand exposure, acceptance, and really building a very loyal customer base for us.

“Despite the challenge of taking such a big risk at that time, we seemed to kind of succeed in the face of adversity.”

While the wine plays a significant part in the business – Wills Domain produces 14,000 cases annually, primarily for the domestic market – it is the restaurant that has developed the brand’s exposure in recent years.

“It has been a bit of a juggernaut since we took on Seth James (as chef) in 2013,” Mr Haunold told Business News.

“He arrived and we really started to pitch more fine dining and the premium aspects of the wine business to the general public.”

On Mr James’ watch the restaurant has been named the WA Good Food Guide’s regional restaurant of the year three times. Nationally, the restaurant has placed in The Australian newspaper’s top 50 four times, which constitutes a place in the hall of fame.

“As a tourism business we have grown and developed a great reputation for the amazing tasting menu we do,” Mr Haunold said.

“It really is a unique experience in Western Australia – having chefs bring dishes to the table and offer themselves to our customers for questions, being a part of the food service itself. I think that it really turns it into a high-level Australian culinary experience.”

He said providing a high-level hospitality product wasn’t enough for sustained success in the highly competitive industry, and while the accolades were beneficial to reputation and public perception, it was an ongoing challenge to stay in the game, let alone at the top of it.

“I think the greatest challenge for any hospitality-based business is to remain current, at the forefront of people’s minds,” Mr Haunold said.

“The difficulty of being in a rural setting is ensuring enough visitors, and it isn’t just my challenge, it is every winery’s challenge.

“The more venues they allow to open in these areas, the more we dilute an already diluted tourism base. The state government and regional bodies have a huge challenge on their hands if they are going to continue to allow new hospitality businesses to open.”

Challenges don’t end with finding and keeping the customers, however, with Mr Haunold suggesting the future of the entire industry was at risk.

“There are not enough skilled hospitality workers to support the fine dining industry here in Australia, they just don’t exist and staff are incredibly hard to find,” he said.

"It’s a role that the new generation seemingly don’t want to be a part of, and the industry is struggling as a result. We need to raise the awareness of the skill shortage in hospitality.”

To that end, Mr Haunold gets some help around the winery from his wife, Suzanne (Strapp) – herself a 40under40 winner (2002) during her time as director and senior audiologist at South West Audiology and Hearing Services – principally in an advisory and quality control capacity.

Mr Haunold said recent changes to migration laws had rendered it prohibitive for many businesses to consider sponsoring staff.

“It is now 10 times the cost to do a transfer of a chef from one business to another. It’s gone from $600 or so dollars to nearly $6,000, and after three months, if that person leaves, you don’t get that back,” Mr Haunold said.”

“I mean, if we are trying to entice people to come to Western Australia as a food and wine destination, we are going to have to increase the quality of the offering to an international standard. At the moment, it is far from it. So, if you ask me where the biggest problem is, that’s it.”


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