Karen and Rob Gough say ongoing investment in staff skills benefits the whole business.

Settlers Tavern finds growth formula

Tuesday, 6 November, 2018 - 09:49

Never settling for second best, a hardworking couple has spent the past 15 years transforming Margaret River’s local pub, Settlers Tavern, into a venue of national note.

A mid-week visit to Settlers Tavern provides few clues that the business is contending with what has been one of the weakest years on record for many in the hospitality sector.

The venue is filled with families, couples and solo diners of all ages. Clearly owners Karen and Rob Gough have been getting the formula right.

But complacency is not in the Goughs’ vocabulary, they tell Business News.

For them, hard work and passion for the product is vital to running any business.

Hospitality is a notoriously fickle industry, however, and it takes business acumen and a solid strategy to stay in the game.

“Most hospitality businesses go out of business within two years; we are really an exception to the rule after 15 years,” Mr Gough said.

Settlers Tavern has won numerous national and state awards on the Goughs’ watch, including The Australian Hotels Association’s best casual pub dining venue, best regional hospitality venue, best wine list and best live entertainment venue.

Wine accolades include Gourmet Traveller Wine’s list of the year and ongoing recognition for excellence from Wine Spectator.

In 2018, the Australasian Performing Right Association named Settlers Tavern its licensee of the year.

“We were the only venue to be recognised,” Mr Gough told Business News.

“All the other awards were for performers (and) we worked out that, in the time we have been here, almost half the performers in that room that night have played at the tavern.

“An award like that just fuels your inspiration to keep going.”

But one award highlights the major point of difference in the Goughs’ business model – the outstanding commitment to workforce development practices award from the AHA in 2017.

The tavern’s team has quadrupled in size from the early years, when Mr and Mrs Gough worked up to 18 hours a day managing a staff of 20.

Mr Gough ran the kitchen and Mrs Gough took care of front-of-house and entertainment operations.

“That’s probably the single most important element in running our business,” Mr Gough said.

“We have up to 80 employees and, if everyone isn’t happy to be here, it is clearly evidenced by the customers.

“You have to really show a lot of respect to the people who work for you and give them opportunities.

“Give them a good work environment. Treat them well.

“We have an HR person here who always has her ear to the ground. Right now we have 12 staff we are putting through three days in supervisor management training.

“We are helping to further their skills so they can manage their teams productively and positively.

“That is a big investment – three days out of the business for 12 of our most senior people and shortening business operation hours while they are there.

“It’s going to be a $30,000 investment.

“You don’t get in the restaurant business to get rich; it’s a very challenging business environment.

“Our approach to a soft economic business environment is to invest more into the business so it performs better.”

Their model has certainly paid off.

Investing in the business, their products and continually improving the culture of the workplace has ensured success.

The couple founded Margaret River Ale Company in 2011, which enabled the team to brew beer, while a love of coffee led to the launch of Sidekick Cafe next door in 2014.

Smokers were barred from the tavern a year before the practice was banned across the state in 2006.

The Goughs have also been early adopters of sustainable environmental and consumer food practices.

Single-use straws were eradicated in 2010, and the venue is now completely free of single-use plastic, with local and organic produce sourced wherever possible.

“If we didn’t do it our way, and a lot of people don’t, we could probably save hundreds of thousands of dollars just by switching to unsustainable and unscrupulous products,” Mr Gough said.

“That goes for the staff, too. We like to pay them properly and do the right thing by them – there are a lot of businesses down here and elsewhere that don’t do that.

“We do it our way or not at all.”

The key to success is not simple, but it is clear.

“It’s always a work in progress,” Mr Gough said.

“The approach you need to have is that it can always be better. There is no such thing as ‘that will do’.”