The friends and partners behind Sweetlips are always looking at how to improve their restaurants. Emily Morgan reports.
From the outside, a fish and chips shop might seem like the frivolous end of the dining scene but, make no mistake, Sweetlips is committed to quality, taste and style.
Michael Waldock and Stephen Gangemi took up residence with the first Sweetlips restaurant in Leederville 16 years ago and built on their business, opening a Fremantle store in 2006.
Their commitment goes beyond delivering humble chips and fillets, these primary school pals and business partners have been bolstering the quality standards for the fish and chips shop ever since they took over the Leederville store.
“Leederville itself was establishing and becoming what it is today,” Mr Waldock said.
“David Bianchi had the cafe on the corner and already had Giardinis, Oxford 130 had opened up and had a real buzz about it. The fish shop there still had fishing nets hanging from the ceilings, plastic seagulls and all that sort of thing.
“That was typical of that time, but I think the industry has smartened up. Now you see fish displays and a high standard of cooking, which is good for the industry.”
Mr Waldock and Mr Gangemi broadened the menu in the early days to introduce fresh fish back to the store, something which had existed in the shop’s history, having operated as a fish shop since 1918.
Not wanting to alienate their existing market, the pair slowly introduced new items and more sought-after fish and, with time, the taste buds broadened.
“Where we differentiate from a lot of fish shops is, a lot of them are built down to a price, we have always wanted to set a standard in produce and quality of food,” Mr Waldock said.
“Obviously, around that you are trying to get the best price you can, but we would never allow the quality of food to be watered down.
“There are many different chips on the market and some that are far cheaper than what we use now, but unless we find something cheaper and what we consider equal quality to what we use now, we would never downgrade.
“We have set a benchmark for what we want to produce and over the years that is what has helped us grow our business.”
Every 12 to 18 months the business is overhauled, with some menu items taken off and others added.
“We have a monthly meeting with our accountant to review figures month by month. That has been a real key for us to keep the business on track. If you don’t do that things can slip away almost from under your feet without you really knowing it,” Mr Waldock said.
“It is those sorts of things that give us confidence that every month we are heading where we expect to be heading.
“Over the years you learn every way you could potentially go out of business and there are a lot of those. Just because your sales are going up, it doesn’t mean your profitability is going up.
“We have years when our sales have been higher than other years, but our profitability might be less than other years. It is a real learning curve in getting things to go in the same direction.”
Sweetlips employs 15 staff and managers in each store, but the owners say they keep in touch by getting their hands dirty.
“Rather than have a full-time filleter, we keep in touch with the shop by going in there, cutting the fish and, I suppose, supporting the management team and discussing any issues they have. We keep involved with it that way,” Mr Waldock said.
The pair have known each other since they were six years old and, while Mr Waldock said he was aware of the advice not to get involved in business with friends, he believed there was an upside to knowing your business partner well.
“We have known each other since grade one so there is a level of understanding and trust,” Mr Waldock said.
“Business is sort of like a marriage, there are so many things that need to be considered in relation to your business partner. There has to be communication and you have to be forthright in saying how you feel about something.”
As for extending the brand, Mr Waldock said their eyes were open, but it was a matter of finding the right location.
“We have committed to getting a large demographic study done on where another shop would be situated,” he said.
“We have two examples of businesses that work, so we know there are other demographics that can work, but we need to nail down whether we want to roll out two or three more shops and where they would be situated.”