Simon Crowe always knew he wanted to run his own business – taking educational detours along the way, he’s on track to making the Grill’d name synonymous not only with guilt-free healthy burgers, but also a devoted workforce – By Cameron Bayley
Now on the way to building a national business from his solid foundation in Victoria, Simon Crowe can laugh about his early frustrations and mistakes, but he takes what they taught him very seriously.
Andrew Barlow, founder of successful online intelligence service Hitwise, once described him as the most frustrated entrepreneur he knew. Crowe happily admits it took 10 years, five business ideas (including pet insurance, an energy drink, car washing) and time overseas before bringing his baby, the Grill’d chain of burger restaurants, to fruition.
"I was completely fearful about establishing a food business because that’s not my background or my experience," he admits, revealing a cautionary side that’s not usually part of the entrepreneur’s vocabulary. However, while working as international brand manager for Foster’s, a job he partly took so he could travel and find some business ideas to bring home, he witnessed what he calls the "rise of burgers" in countries such as the United Kingdom and New Zealand, as well as their constant place in the diet of many Americans. He soon realised there was a niche in Australia for a healthy hamburger option.
He called on two young chefs he knew to find the right product. The process to find something traditional, yet unique, would make many envious, taking place "over many, many weekends with myself and many mates drinking beers and eating food. It was just fantastic," he laughs. But it wasn’t just an excuse to pig out. "A lot of it was just me trying to figure out what taste profiles I wanted," he explains. "So that we are in fact considered and positioned as an expert in healthy burgers."
The end results have gone down very well with Melbourne consumers, a tough crowd already spoilt for choice in the city of cafes. After opening in 2004 there are now nine locations in the chain, three of which are franchises, and Crowe expects there to be 15 Grill’d stores running by the end of the year. "We have a solid foundation now, so the responsibility’s ours to take what we have and grow it in a controlled fashion."
Crowe says the desire to run his own business has always been in his blood. Watching his father work in a pharmacy all his life, he says there was really never any other option. "I’d seen the way his business operated, I saw him as a business owner, and I assumed that to be what I’d eventually do." At the same time, however, he knew he didn’t just want one store, he wanted to grow something larger
After university he spent time working in marketing for large companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Davenport, and Foster’s, learning all he could through those experiences, always with one goal in mind, to have his own business. "By choice or by chance I’ve always walked a path that would hopefully lead me there."
He left Foster’s towards the end of September 2003 ready to open his first Grill’d, only to find a prospective lease fall through at the last minute. "I was in no-man’s land for a little while which was probably, and only in retrospect, the best thing that happened," Crowe says. "I developed the business plan a little bit further, and when we did start our operations it was operationally-focussed and we knew what we stood for, we knew what the brand represented, and employing the right people was a lot easier."
Talking to Crowe about the business, it’s difficult for him to not mention how important his team is. He’s full of praise for his two business partners, and the rest of the crew. "If we’re sincere about growing this thing, and we’re sincere about making it a success, then the only way to get there will be to develop our people," he says. A new joint venture structure will soon see ambitious employees co-funded by the company to open their own Grill’d franchise. "So we can actually bring people through the ranks, and they can choose to be business owners in their own right." Treating staff with respect and empowering them with responsibilities, even the younger staff coming in for a casual shift, is where the future of the business lies he says. It’s something SME owners don’t pay enough attention to, he warns. "Too often we ask for loyalty but we don’t even try to earn it."
A new development plan has just been created, focusing on two key areas—the financial and organisational sides of the business, which looks to develop and motivate staff and bring out their best. At present, team leaders have a budget to reward staff with time out, and the company hosts a party for all team members once a year. "So, if we can respect our guys, show them a good time, recognise that work’s supposed to be fun or can be fun, then we actually will have a culture that is unique and hard to copy."
He admits entering the food industry is a challenge, especially when there are some major players on the scene. While he’d like to see the Grill’d brand perform on an international stage—"if I could write my own ticket, then I’d love to take Grill’d overseas and position it as an Australian brand in the US market"—the business doesn’t look at the McDonald’s and Hungry Jacks of this world as their competitors. "They represent a lot of things that we do not." Instead it’s the world of the cafes and small businesses such as Thai restaurants, noodle places, and contemporary Australian food providers that Grill’d sees as friendly competition. "All of us have a unique point of difference in our product. Put us together and we become a destination for convenience food."
His marketing nous loves the challenge of making Grill’d a dining experience. When looking for creatives to come up with the look of the stores, those from outside the food sector were called upon to give a fresh approach. "We wanted somebody who was a non-food-based designer so they could look at this with different eyes," he explains. "Because we’re playing in a competitive landscape, or a category that’s dominated by multi-nationals, we didn’t want to be confused with them in the slightest."
The first step towards making Grill’d a national business is to hit the Queensland market, with the first store opening this year. The aim is to get up to five stores operational in the Sunshine State before launching in New South Wales. "To be a national brand we have to be in the NSW market," he says. "NSW is obviously a challenging territory and we want to go there and have money in our pockets to grow quickly."
While he’s naturally proud of his product (and craves a Grill’d burger if he hasn’t had one for a day or two), it’s the two key elements of staff and store location that he keeps coming back to as the backbone, and therefore the major challenge for the business. "Undoubtedly we are very proud to be a healthy burger expert but our sustainability, our growth, will be around those two things—people and properties." Put it all together, and he admits it’s a package with great potential. "We’re just at the beginning of our journey."