03/12/2009 - 00:00

Simpson hunts for bigger game

03/12/2009 - 00:00


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Despite a certain ambivalence towards the industry, a local restaurateur has staked his claim in Scarborough and Hillarys. Russell Quinn reports.

Simpson hunts for bigger game

FOR someone who openly admits to often disliking the industry he works in, Gareth Simpson really is killing the pig.

Or should that be slaying the hippopotamus?

Mr Simpson, 28, has been owner and head chef of the Hippo Creek African Grill restaurants for almost six years.

And even though he is adamant it is a very tough industry, with many pitfalls and problems along the way, he can’t see himself doing anything else.

“I reckon it’s one of the worst industries in the world to work in but the only thing that makes it good is if you have a passion for service and good food,” Mr Simpson told Gusto.

“You’ve got to be prepared to get abused, to get laughed at, everything.

“It’s a love-hate relationship, but I wouldn’t do anything else.”

That being said, about three years ago Mr Simpson contemplated selling up his original Hippo Creek restaurant in Scarborough when six nights a week in the kitchen became too much.

After discussing the idea with his then fiancé and now wife, Nadine, he decided to continue serving up massive steaks and exotic African treats like crocodile, ostrich and buffalo for his loyal clientele.

A good thing too, considering he’s now turning over about $5.5 million a year at his one-year-old Hillarys waterfront restaurant and almost $1 million at the original Scarborough site.

But developing the business into two successful steakhouses was not part of the original plan.

More than a year ago, Mr Simpson’s Scarborough landlord made him aware of a two-year cap on the existing long-term lease arrangements due to future redevelopment plans, with no promise of an ongoing lease beyond a month at a time.

A comprehensive search assisted by local real estate agents resulted in securing a spot on the Sorrento Quay Boardwalk extension, alongside the revamped Breakwater Tavern, to accommodate the attention grabbing, albeit tastefully decorated, African-themed steak house.

The 15-year lease at more than $300,000 a year and the $1 million fit-out price tag were funded by a bank loan after both Mr Simpson and his father put their houses up as collateral.

“Once we got Hillarys up and running and I was happy with it we sat down and looked at the money haemorrhaging towards Scarborough and that was four to five grand a month, so $60,000 a year in ongoing rent,” Mr Simpson says.

“And we had a lot of customers saying ‘we liked the old shabby Scarborough one’ so we decided to reopen it and see what we could get from it; so even if we broke even we were still saving $60,000 per year.

“So we reopened four nights a week in August (2009), and now weekends are full and the couple of days during the week it’s about three-quarters full.”

But Mr Simpson knew he needed extra help, desperately.

Another head chef, who had occasionally helped out at Scarborough in years gone by, was brought on board to take on some of the responsibility of running the restaurants.

Operations manager and head chef, Adam Bastin, has been an invaluable addition, especially as he has a vested interest in the success of the business thanks to a profit share agreement with an equity buy-in.

“As long as I hit my targets he gets a profit share and he can use that to purchase back into the company,” Mr Simpson says.

“My theory is if you put a promise or carrot in front of staff they’re going to try and get that carrot.

“He does 80-hour weeks, he puts in a lot of work and if he’s got money coming out of it he’s going to act like me; he’s going to watch the food costs, the staff wages and the little things.

“He’s basically me when I’m not here.”

And keep an eye out for more Hippo Creek African Grill restaurants in the future, although Mr Simpson emphasises that three restaurants is his limit.



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