In conversation with Rockpool Dining Group Chief Executive Officer, Thomas Pash

Can you tell us what a typical day looks like as CEO of the Rockpool Dining Group?

I’m always up early to work out and organise my thoughts for the day; it’s a regimen that leads to a more productive day. I find I’m at my best for the first half of the day, so I try to schedule more intense analytical work, or harder projects and decisions for early in the day when I am fresh and at my sharpest.

Every morning I look at the performance of each restaurant the previous day and check reservations for the day ahead, and touch base with our Food & Beverage Directors if there are unexplained peaks or red flags. With over 80 restaurants in our portfolio, I keep a close eye on each post-COVID re-opening, to ensure the team is on track and we come out of the gates in a strong position.

Lunch is either at, or from, one of our restaurants; perhaps a couple of tacos at El Camino Cantina, wings or a burger from WingHAÜSby Bavarian, or a big salad at The Bavarian. More recently I’ve been trying the new bowls of noodles on the bar menu at Spice Temple, which are an excellent, convenient and affordable option in the heart of the city. It’s also a good opportunity to walk across the city from our head office in The Rocks and gauge what city foot traffic is like, and how busy other venues are. Competitive analysis is on my daily to-do list. I’m an avid mystery shopper of our competitors’ brands, so I may grab a bite to eat at a venue outside of our group, if not for lunch, then for dinner.

The second part of my day I try to reward myself and focus on the fun, lighter parts of my job like strategy, spending time with the team and in team meetings, visiting venues, and R&D across the brands.

COVID-19 brought a series of significant challenges to the hospitality industry. Can you tell us how you pivoted your business to cope, and what have you learnt from that?

During the hospitality industry shutdown, we pivoted several of our restaurant brands to better service customers who were isolating at home. Fratelli Fresh morphed into Fratelli Fresh Grocer home delivery service, with groceries, ready-made meals, and cook-at-home meal kits. Saké Double Bay launched its Saké @ Home pick-up service. Both businesses were so successful that we were inspired to re-open most of our restaurants with expanded delivery and pick-up services, so customers have more convenience to dine at home if they choose to.

We learnt that we needed to monitor and quickly adapt to changing dining trends. Through our delivery and pick-up services, we have seen particularly strong uplift in suburban and regional areas, as individuals travel less frequently to the city for work, or to dine out.

We have also learnt that as workers are heading back to the city they are looking for smart, safe and affordable dining options, without compromising on quality. This led to the revival of Spice Temple Sydney’s bar menu and $15 bowls of noodles. They’re a quick, cost-effective and COVID-safe dining option that are also conveniently available ‘to go’.

I’d say that throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Rockpool Dining Group took on the change, embraced and owned it, and now we are better and stronger as a Group. As Ben Franklin said: “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished”. I think that says it all.

There is a strong focus on the beverage aspect of your portfolio. What experience are you looking to provide for your customers, at different levels?

At the casual end of our portfolio, we are looking to provide a fun, unique and innovative beverage experience for guests. Our famous frozen margaritas at El Camino Cantina are a good example of this. We recently launched Ritapalooza, which is a festival to celebrate our margaritas, with 15 creative and slightly whacky flavours to choose from. It was such a hit at El Camino Cantina in The Rocks in Sydney that we have since launched it at our latest El Camino Cantina, which opened at South Bank in Brisbane at the end of November. We also recently launched margarita tasting paddles of four, 220ml serves, which is a fun way for guests to explore the unusual range of flavours.

Similarly, at Fratelli Fresh we launched our 25 Flavours of Spritzmas program, which heroes the Italian spritz while putting a Fratelli riff on the flavours offered. And The Bavarian recently launched a range of refreshing summertime shandies. It’s all about giving our casual dining guests heaps of choice, and a reason to return again and again to try different flavours and experiences.

At the premium end of our portfolio, we aim to provide a complete, sophisticated and immersive beverage experience. We have just taken out three prestigious awards in Australia’s Wine List of the Year Awards 2020: best Champagne List at Rockpool Bar & Grill Sydney; best Digestif list, also at Rockpool Bar & Grill Sydney; and the best Medium List for Spice Temple Sydney. These awards are symbolic of what we aim to achieve from a beverage point of view at our premium restaurants and which are a fantastic acknowledgement of our sommeliers’ achievements.

Using Fratelli Fresh at Darling Harbour as an example, your venues have a lot of versatility in what they offer diners. Is that an overall blueprint for the future, and what does the future hold for your more high-end offerings?

Versatility, agility, diversity: they are the key words – and focus – for the whole hospitality sector currently. All three have been part of the Rockpool Dining Group blueprint for a long time, and we will continue to pursue that strategy into the future.

Excellent service is synonymous with the Rockpool Dining Group experience, regardless of the entry point for your patrons. What directions do you offer to your team in that respect?

I often remind my team members that it is always a gift when a customer walks into one of our venues, therefore we need to go above and beyond to make sure their time with us is special and memorable.

We need to take great care of every single customer who comes through our doors and deliver amazing hospitality to our guests every single day.

We should always challenge ourselves to be great and do that extra something to make the dining experience special.

Can you tell us what excites you about what the future holds for the Rockpool Dining Group?

In many ways we used this challenging year to slow down and reset our strategic goals and identify what is and isn’t important to us as we embarked on our Group’s fresh start. We also made a point to turn off the unnecessary noise, deal with facts and data, and not with drama.

With that, I truly believe we are coming out of the COVID pandemic better as a team and tighter as an organisation. The battles, challenges and obstacles we faced together this year have strengthened our core business and team more than I can have ever imagined. As we move forward into 2021, our core team is more experienced, resourceful, cohesive, and accountable to each other; our venues and dining brands are truly better in terms of service, food and beverage programming, innovation, atmosphere and experience; and our operational foundation is more efficient and effective. So, while 2020 was highly challenging, I believe it has set the table for an amazing 2021 and beyond and this Group’s next chapter will be even sweeter and more rewarding after the brutal year we survived together.

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