Perfect partnerships vital for success, says veteran restaurateur

Tony Robertson outside Char Bar and Grill on Hardy St.
MARION VAN DIJK

Tony Robertson outside Char Bar and Grill on Hardy St.

It takes more than just being able to cook to own a hospitality business. In fact, quite often the owner of a business isn't the chef; they just do everything else.

One man who has running a great hospitality business down to a fine art is Tony Robertson from Styx on the waterfront and Char Bar and Grill in the centre of town. Robertson brings more than 40 years experience to these dining establishments, so he can quite rightly claim to "have had plenty of practice."

When I asked him what he thought the secret to running a successful hospitality business was, without a hint of hesitation he said it came down to the staff, "having fantastic service staff in particular is crucial."

Robertson said  chefs will tell you the thing that brings people back to dine regularly is 85 per cent about the food. But Robertson thinks while   good food is important, it only makes up about 45 per cent of the success quotient, with the rest coming down to service and ambience.

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"If you have great food and poor service people won't come back. If you have average food or something goes wrong and it is handled well people will give you another go. 

"I have always operated on a money-back guarantee when it comes to quality, so our focus is on making people happy with the experience of dining with us. If they enjoy it they will come back and hopefully tell others too.

"Of course things do go wrong occasionally in every business, so is vitally important these things are handled well and to do that, we need fantastic staff," Robertson said.

Tony Robertson moved to Nelson with partner Yasuko Abe from Queenstown.
MARION VAN DIJK

Tony Robertson moved to Nelson with partner Yasuko Abe from Queenstown.

The thing that struck me about Robertson as we chatted over a coffee was that even though he has a shareholding in three restaurants he isn't the sort of guy who is trying to build an empire. His love of the industry and helping others is what motivates him.

In every restaurant he has owned over the years he has always had business partners and they are often chefs.

"I have always been a firm believer in having a chef as a partner. They have commercial and personal buy-in. If they have some skin in the game they care more. Besides, without a chef, I'm toast."

"It can be challenging at times and we have some interesting discussions. I may be a little set in my ways but I'm open to persuasion. On the other hand I have a lot of experience and I'm used to working with other people and helping them succeed too," he said.

"Being successful means everyone wins; the customer has a great experience and we all get to share in the profits."

Robertson has been involved in the hospitality sector his entire working life. Originally from Australia,  he spent his youth surfing and enjoying the recreational advantages of living in a big city like Sydney.

Starting out in a movie theatre in Manly as a projectionist, he eventually ended up managing the theatre.

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"My brother came over to New Zealand and was one of the original surfers of Gisborne. I came over five years later but to Queenstown where I was a ski instructor. I worked in hotels in the off season or to make extra money to travel overseas ski areas. That was my intro to hospitality and it has been part of my life ever since," Robertson said.

After spending two ski seasons in Japan and America he came back to Queenstown before he ended up in Christchurch studying Japanese for two years.

His first business partner was a Scottish woman in Queenstown,

"We used to drink gin together. She tapped me on the shoulder on day because she had seen the need to cater for the Japanese tourist market that was growing at the time and I suddenly found myself involved in a restaurant.

"I borrowed $20,000 from by brother in Gisborne, put $5000 on my credit card and borrowed a huge amount from the bank. Eileen put in some money along with a third partner who was a Kiwi who worked on oil rigs. He bought the lease and the rest is history."

"We sailed close to the wind a few times. The share market crashed in the late 80s and interest rates were about 20 per cent for business lending but we survived the tough times and I learned some valuable business lessons as I went from surfer to restaurateur."

This restaurant in Queenstown was Japanese. It was only the fifth such restaurant in the country and was only one not run by Japanese owners.

"Getting fresh fish in Queenstown was a real challenge and we were the first to introduce a tank of live crayfish. It all seems quite normal now but in those days it had a wow factor."

While he was an owner of Minami Jujisei (southern cross in Japanese) Robertson set up the Boardwalk Restaurant at Steamer Wharf and still has an ownership in that business.

Two of the staff he worked with in Queenstown wanted to set up a restaurant so he helped them buy Styx on Nelson's Wakefield Quay. Joe Horton (head chef) and Katie Funnell (front of house) who started as a 17-year-old in Queenstown found herself in charge of a restaurant when she was about 23.

"Managing a restaurant of that size was challenging for a first restaurant but she did very well and while I did as much as I could from Queenstown inevitably it was the two of them who were running it, I just made sure they gathered a good strong team around them."

Five years after opening Styx, Funnel moved on to partner in a restaurant in the Caitlins so Robertson came to live in Nelson. His partner Yasuko had been in Queenstown for 24 years and while they used to ski, she wanted to live near a beach.

Because they had already made the initial investment in Styx and had been coming to Nelson regularly over the years it was an easy decision to make,

"Queenstown has changed so much it was driving us mad," Robertson.

Robertson said Queenstown is a tough environment to run a business. If you are in the centre of town you have high foot traffic but also exceptionally high rents.

It is impossible to find a place for your staff to stay, there is no permanent pool of locals to draw on and the cost of everything you need for your business is about 5-10 per cent higher than other centres. But it is the rent that is really challenging for hospitality. I know of one restaurant paying $450,000 a year in rent."

Back in Nelson, his partners in Char Bar & Grill are Tony Carlin and Katie Hunt and they are still working on fine-tuning the menu to get a nice balance that works for Char. They're also working on some events for the winter, including special dinners with winemakers from Central Otago "If I can convince them to come up here."

"I also like my restaurants to be affordable for everyone, not just aiming at the high-end spender. As much as I love dining and have been to some fantastic restaurants over the years, I am a man of simple pleasures. 

"I just love food that tastes good and is all about the flavour of the original ingredient. I appreciate the craftsmanship a chef puts into the food but it has to taste great," he said.

"My pet peeve of the moment is the immigration policies being talked about by politicians. I think it's a knee-jerk reaction in election year."

"I don't think they realise how many foreigners work in our industry. Out of 55 staff in the three restaurants I have a share in, about 40 are foreign. We just can't find enough locals to fill the jobs we have."

"Most of my work these days is dealing with staff and helping them helping with immigration issues as well as helping them become great hospitality business operators too. The people I help are good for the industry."

 - Stuff

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