Innovation in food businesses — how to get the winning edge
Why do some food businesses thrive while others fade away? Can creativity and profitability go hand in hand and fuel the success of a culinary enterprise? Dr. Susie Chant, renowned Australian food entrepreneur and owner of award-winning restaurants and hospitality ventures, shares her key lessons in entrepreneurship with Le Cordon Bleu Consulting Editor Sona Bahadur.
How did you start your culinary career?
I was always inclined towards food. After working in the UK at Blenheim Palace — the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill and the home of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough — and learning to cook game birds and all sorts of wonderful things, I decided to do Commercial Cookery when I returned to Australia and make a career out of food. I loved the course so much that I won the dux award and was headhunted by the Hyatt Hotel who were just about to open in Adelaide. From there I was promoted with a transfer to the Hyatt Regency on Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean. These experiences proved invaluable when I returned to Australia and launched my own hospitality businesses on the Limestone Coast and Coonawarra.
Walk us through your journey from chef to restaurateur. What were the driving factors behind the change in made you change your career path?
To be honest, I saw a lot of owners and managers who weren’t running their businesses well, and I thought there was a better way. Being efficient in your processes and creating a sustainable business model is not hard. I was also very passionate about creating a fresh new approach to dining that captured the needs of the customer base at that particular time. I thought, why not create a tourism experience out of the food produced from the region with each ingredient telling a story about culture, tradition, provenance and geography. That’s how my restaurants were born.
Tell us a little about your first years as a restaurateur? What challenges you face and how did you overcome them?
I was brought up with a strong work ethic, and I also love a challenge! I didn’t find finances and funding an issue. I only spent what I had. As I made money, I made improvements and grew the business. The hardest part was managing staff and ensuring they were happy. I believe staff are is a reflection of the values of the owner of the business. If they’re happy, they are loyal and perform very well.
How did you build your restaurants into award-winning businesses? What were some of the key elements behind your success?
Three words. Quality, quality, quality.
In your opinion what is ’s one of the least understood practices in the restaurant business?
Really long hours, and a lot of cleaning! Going that extra mile to understand your customer base. What is happening culturally, with the government food policy, the latest trends? If I opened a food business now, it would be all about wellness and sustainability including ecologically and business wise.
At one stage you ran a bed and breakfast establishment, what would one or two key learnings from this experience?
High profit but a lot of work! The most important aspect is providing quality facilities and being available for your clients by having the local information they need. Providing a service basically being a concierge for your guests.
How did you move from hands on businesses into the academic field?
After running successful restaurants and bed and breakfasts for over a decade, I was flicking through a magazine when I came across a scholarship for a Masters in Gastronomy at the University of Adelaide. I applied for it and was successful. Doing this master’s degree changed my life. After graduating, I won another scholarship at the University, this time for a Masters in Entrepreneurship and Innovation when I pitched a business idea relating to ethical foods.
By this stage, I was hooked to study and research, so when one of my lecturers suggested doing a PhD on local foods in Australia, I leapt at the opportunity. My thesis on the history of local foods in Australia took me back to the beginning of European settlement in Australia when sourcing local food was a matter of survival. I came across so many different concepts relating to local food that were unique to Australia.
Currently, I work as an Academic Manager for Le Cordon Bleu, lecturing in the Master of Hospitality Management at UniSA, which I love, and also retain a strong working relationship with the University of Adelaide’s Business School. I am also a member of the University’s Food Values Research Group.
What’s your mantra/motto for food entrepreneurship?
Simple. Quality always sells.
How do you find a balance between creativity and profitability?
You need to be passionate about your business idea. Backing yourself, having the right business knowledge, being driven and working hard are all key if in achieving profitability. Creativity comes in many forms, from innovative systems and processes, i.e.: a particular style of service, to the way you put ingredients together, in a way grabs the interest of your customer. Creativity and profitability go hand in hand.
Should food entrepreneurs incorporate local produce into their food ventures?
It just makes sense to use local food. It reflects the culture of the region and this creates a tourism experience for the customer. Local food has a shorter supply chain and keeps the local economy strong.
Is 2020 a good time to start a new food business? What exciting new opportunities or niches do you predict we will see this year?
Yes, absolutely. The time is right for food entrepreneurship. Our whole culture screams innovation around food right now. I see opportunities around native and indigenous foods; sustainable, organic, local and ethical foods; veganism and plant-based diets and wellness foods relating to diet and nutrition. Technologies for example drones that can simplify agricultural processes.
You wear many hats — chef, restaurateur, local food expert, academic. Which role do you love the most?
I love them all! Each role has led to the next one in a very linear way. I started my career in hospitality, then quickly fell in love with what was happening in the kitchen. I love the alchemy of food and all the interesting ways you can make a career out of it. Using local produce made sense to me well before it became fashionable.