Business Insights from an Entrepreneurial Chef

Chef Mal Gill has already turned his love of all things food and drink into a serious business enterprise.

Having established and run some of Northern Australia's most respected cafes and bars, he has appeared on the television program My Kitchen Rules and won numerous industry awards - from Queensland's Best Café, to food preparation accolades including Australian Sandwich King.

He currently owns and runs Shady Palms Café, an on-trend American food and craft beer venue; he also founded dive bar and live music venue The Milk Factory and popular café Lady Marmalade.

Here he shares his recipe for success for anyone thinking of opening their own foodservice business.

There certainly is a definite attraction to the concept of being your own boss, writing your own pay cheques and enjoying the freedom of becoming an entrepreneur. I think this is what motivated me to start my own café back in 2010 and it continues to motivate me today as I look to open my next venue in Brisbane.

There is always going to be challenges in the foodservice sector – that’s why we love it right? And it’s certainly not for everyone. You have to be a self-starter and willing to put in the hours, but for anyone dreaming of opening their own café, bar or restaurant there are definitely some valuable things to keep in mind across the board...

Have a purpose

It’s really important that whatever you do decide to do you have a purpose behind it. Don’t be a follower who is jumping on board the latest trend. Figure out what makes your business different and build on those principles.

Entrepreneurs are basically problem solvers, and finding a problem to solve for everyday consumers will be at the core of your success. Before I opened Lady Marmalade in Stones Corner the area was in dire need of a good café offering. A relaxed cafe that did breakfast and lunch and did them well. That was our purpose: excellent service, food and coffee. It was as simple as that, and it worked. 

Develop trust with your staff

The employee turnover rate is notoriously high in hospitality, so it is critical you develop trust and loyalty among your employees to keep them on board. On top of that, whoever said ‘identify your weaknesses and hire someone to do them’ is a genius. You can’t be expected to do everything, so stick to your strengths and surround yourself with people who can stick to theirs, whether that be marketing, business management, coffee making or waiting tables.

Nurture a loyal clientele

People who come to your venue are after more than just a meal. They are buying the experience of dining out and you don’t want to disappoint them. Offer efficient service, a fun environment and of course good food.

For me, good food is about buying good quality produce and making my own from scratch when it matters. This sees me and my kitchen staff pre-making delicious sauces, mayos and pickles rather than buying them. This means the finishing touches – the things people really notice – really pack a punch.

Watch food costs

There is no quicker way to go out of business than not keeping an eye on your food costs. You will get to know the prices of the most niche products and that is a good thing! Review your invoices, ask questions and keep track of food prices that might fluctuate. You may need to buy good quality alternatives for periods, or look at buying in bulk and freezing where you can. This is especially true of bread – in 2012 and 2013 when Lady Marmalade took out the Queensland Best Sandwiches title we had to have a good look at par-baked breads so we could keep enough on hand in the freezer without throwing too much out following lower demand.

Running a restaurant, café or casual dining venue in Australia is never without its challenges, but if you keep these points in mind you will be going a long way to building the foundations for success in your business. Remember that you will be learning every day so keep your eye open for new solutions and inspiration! 


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