THE restaurant industry is a tough game, but someone has to do it – and Philip Johnson (pictured) is accustomed to challenges.
The 52-year-old was born in New Zealand where he did his apprenticeship before moving to Australia at 18. He worked as a chef in London before returning to Brisbane in 1988 to open his first restaurant – Le Bronx in New Farm.
“I’ve owned two restaurants in Brisbane – a French restaurant called Le Bronx from 1988 to 1993 and we’ve had E’cco Bistro since 1995. I started Le Bronx after borrowing against the equity I had in my home loan and I also borrowed a small amount from my father who I paid back shortly after,” explains Johnson.
“From the beginning, Le Bronx was a real struggle just like any ambitious restaurant and we worked like dogs. After six years of hard graft we wondered what on earth we were doing but it was really about building a great reputation.
“Just before we started E’cco, my wife Shirley and I were actually planning to go back to England to work for a couple of years when we saw the building in Brisbane’s CBD, that E’cco is housed in now.”
The restaurant is on the corner of Adelaide and Boundary streets and housed in an old tea merchants building.
“It’s a tea house from the 1920s called Inglis Tea and the architect that owned it, Robert Riddel, wanted to open a restaurant in it, so we confined our travels to less than a year before moving back to Brisbane to open E’cco,” says Johnson.
“We made a few changes to the building itself, we changed the ceiling heights and also found that the floorboards were stained with tea, so it’s a drawcard to be part of that history.
“Then we thought we learned a lot of lessons with the first restaurant and we’ve got to make this one successful.
“We looked at the things that were costing us money in the first restaurant and changed them, we put the staff in butcher’s aprons and there’s no real line between the front and back of the restaurant. These are the things we still do today, so I suppose that’s been one of the keys of our success.”
After two years in operation, the restaurant received the coveted 1997 Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the Year Award, which Johnson says really caught people’s attention.
“Two years in to running E’cco, we won the Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the Year award, which became our claim to fame and gave the restaurant a national clientele - it was also a first for Queensland,” he says.
Johnson describes the restaurant industry as tough but one that people continue to try and break into.
“If you had the money, I would actually advise you to put it in the bank, not into opening a restaurant, but people still open restaurants. And if it’s in your blood and that’s what you do, then I guess that’s what you do, but for newcomers, it’s a tough industry and if you’re on the other side of the fence, it’s even tougher,” he says.
“Chefs think you just get into the kitchen, cook and that’s the end of it, but to be successful, you need to understand the business side of it and if you don’t, then you need to engage people that do like accountants and financial advisers.
“The restaurant turns over between 10 and 15 per cent (profit margin) annually when the average is only two but we also have a lot hanging off the restaurant like the cookbooks, the bar, my appearances as a guest chef – there’s a lot there.”
Johnson says one of the secrets to his success is very simple – create a business that you’re happy to work in everyday yourself.
“It sounds like such a simple thing but so many people don’t do this. If you go to work every day and you’re unhappy, how can you expect anyone else to work there and be happy?,” he says.
“It’s a combination of things for different people – it’s not necessarily all about the money, or the hours or the time off or just one thing – it comes down to a combination of factors that makes people happy. I just try and create an environment where people are happy to work and that’s the only way you get longevity.”
Employing six to eight chefs from a range of different nationalities means there’s always new ideas flying about the kitchen.
“We’re never short on ideas or inspiration because it’s a multicultural environment – it’s an open book, we take everything on board and if they’re good ideas we use them and if they’re not good ideas, we don’t use them,” says Johnson.
“We actually just employed a new pastry chef, she’s 21 and is always showing us different ways to work with pastry, but in her old job, no – one wanted to listen to her ideas, let alone serve them.
“I wonder why you wouldn’t embrace new ideas because if someone is gifted or talented, you have to embrace it because it actually makes you look good at the end of the day. It’s not your idea or my idea, it’s a good idea.”
Johnson started E’cco Bar two years ago and now has six cookbooks on the shelves – two examples of the many ventures he’s involved in.
“With the cookbooks, we wanted to create something that would promote the restaurant so we decided to write a cookbook and the first one was reprinted within 10 weeks – that was 25,000 copies, which is quite a lot for Brisbane and our latest cookbook, Decadence, was printed in Dutch and German, so that’s nice,” he says.
He says it’s flattering when people bring them to the restaurant for him to sign looking like they have been put to good use.
“There seems to be a trend today where people buy cookbooks to put on their coffee table and they don’t use them – they become a decorative feature, which is fine, but for me, cookbooks are supposed to be enjoyed,” says Johnson.
“So it’s flattering when people bring them in to the restaurant to be signed and the pages are all dog eared and covered in food because you know then, that people have enjoyed them.”
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