It has been a long journey from burgers ‘n’ fries to enchiladas and rice for one Perth restaurateur. Russell Quinn reports.
IT was his love of all things Latino, especially the spicy cuisine of Central America, and a lack of authentic Mexican cooking in Perth that inspired Gavin Bower to open his own restaurant, That Little Mexican Place, in North Perth.
That was four years ago, and since then Mr Bower has developed the original That Little Mexican Place, otherwise known as TLMP by his chilli-loving patrons, into a popular 20-seat eatery.
The original has been joined by a second TLMP, another 20-seater serving breakfast, lunch and dinner that opened last month on the burgeoning cafe strip of Albany Highway in Victoria Park.
But it wasn’t the first TLMP expansion Mr Bower has tried, nor may it be the last.
“I had another restaurant I owned a couple of years ago, which I closed,” Mr Bower told Gusto.
“The old Mexican Cantina in Bentley, that was my real attempt at a second restaurant.
“I bought it, worked out it was a dog, and closed it before it cost me any more money.
“I was going backwards … the profit from North Perth and loss from Bentley was costing me $1,000 a week.”
He says a run of vandalism, car break-ins, graffiti and burglaries, which culminated in one of his head chefs being attacked by some men who were trying to steal his car, pushed him to breaking point.
“It’s a risk, but you’ve got to realise if things aren’t working you’ve got to pull the plug before it becomes a problem,” Mr Bower says.
But, as the saying goes, ‘every cloud has a silver lining’, and in this case closing the Bentley restaurant saved him enough money to fit-out the new Victoria Park site.
“Everything in this restaurant is second hand; the only thing that isn’t is the PA system and a red lightshade,” he says.
“When I closed it (Bentley), I paid out the lease, threw the whole lot into storage ... and this is it.”
Mr Bower’s taste for the diverse flavours of Mexican fare developed after serving up Spanish-Indian infused dishes for two seasons as a chef at a Colorado ski resort in a region populated with Mexican eateries.
In Colorado Mr Bower met fellow chef Charles Wessels, who was to prove integral to the development of his business.
Mr Bower says because Mexican cuisine is an art form in its own right, balancing flavours and textures using a wide variety of exotic chillies and other fresh ingredients, it requires a specific skill set and knowledge to produce quality authentic meals.
So, when opening TLMP in 2006, Mr Bower brought Mr Wessels to Perth on a 457 skilled migration visa for four months to help establish the North Perth eatery and to train chefs to meet the culinary grade required.
“When expanding it’s tough to trust the staff, especially the chefs as they need to be trained to cook Mexican food properly,” Mr Bower says.
A limited talent pool of Mexican chefs in WA means Mr Bowers has been unable to update his menu as often as he would’ve liked, but transferring some of the more experienced staff from North Perth to Victoria Park has helped with the recent expansion.
Interestingly, TLMP wasn’t the first restaurant Mr Bower has opened.
He spent close to 20 years working for fast-food giant McDonald’s, first as a teenager in Sydney and then 12 years as a manager, during which time he opened five new McDonald’s restaurants including the Riverton, Innaloo and Duncraig outlets.
“They used me for opening stores for some reason,” he says. “My McDonald’s experience has been more helpful to me running this business than being a qualified chef.
“It’s so important.”