There’s a lot of history behind Simon Gloftis, not that you’d know it for a man who opens a restaurant only for it to be named the region’s best two weeks later.
But that’s exactly what happened to the Nobby Beach native when he launched Hellenika at Calile, the second iteration of the famed Gold Coast restaurant that pioneered shared plate Greek cuisine.
Just a couple of weeks after opening its doors at the Calile hotel in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, it was named the best new restaurant in Queensland in the 2018 Delicious 100 list.
As Simon is a SKOPE customer from way back (and a long-time customer of The Commercial Appliance Centre), we used our back of house pass at the original Hellenika to track him down and get the full story.
SKOPE: Hi Simon, so first thing’s first – you must be one of the few restauranteurs in history to open your doors and then be named the best in just a matter of weeks. How does that feel?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to give it back - but the award probably came a little early!
As a restauranteur, I know if somebody moved to the Gold Coast and two weeks later they got named best restaurant in Queensland, I’d be like “Hang on – the guy’s only been open two days!”
But having said that, Hellenika is not a new restaurant. It’s got nine years’ of history behind it and Hellenika at Calile itself is run by my original head chef and manager, who both started with me right at the beginning of the journey. It also took us four and a half years to find the right location, so this is no overnight success by any measure.
"Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to give it back - but the award probably came a little early!"
A four and half year wait to find the right location followed by a two week wait for success. That must feel pretty validating.
I was looking at sites all around Fortitude Valley. I kept getting offered these sites where either the rent was ridiculous or the fit out wasn’t good.
And then the Calile came across my desk. I looked at it and thought it just looks like Hellenika should be in that building. It fits like you wouldn’t believe! We open up onto the pool deck, so having a Greek salad by the pool – everything just feels right.
I agreed to have a five minute chat with the landlords, which turned into about a three hour chat! They don’t know this, but I made up my mind half way through that conversation.
So what was it about the hotel that stood out?
The landlords were like me, they walked me around and showed me the details they were really passionate about – like these bricks they’d imported from Spain. When we opened Hellenika at Nobby Beach we flew up red bricks from Melbourne’s old Spencer Street station, before that whole subway hall look became fashionable, so I identified with that passion and attention to detail.
I had faith in the landlords and the building, rather than just the area or myself – instead of backing the horse, I backed the trainer and the jockey. And when you’re picking a venue that’s really important.
Was it easy working with the hotel’s architects to make sure your vision and brand remained intact?
It was very easy and the result is that Hellenika looks like it’s always been at the Calile, it doesn’t look like an afterthought.
I had total control on who I wanted to use as architects and for the fit out, for everything really. I chose Richards & Spence, who designed the hotel, because they really understood the flow through and what the restaurant needed to be. They understood the intricacies right down to where the columns needed to be placed. So it’s fair to say Hellenika and Calile are one.
You must have been under a bit of pressure to adapt the concept for a hotel poolside setting…
No, not at all. We’ve always had a very strong lunch market – we open 7 days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner – so I knew we’d have a really, really strong lunch market at Calile too, and to have that pool there is perfect for that.
At the end of the day the food is identical with the Gold Coast, it’s just the fit out that’s different. We had to bring the heart and the soul of Hellenika into the Calile, and that’s the hard part. We’ve got 90 staff in Hellenika, so that’s a lot of people that need to be on the same page.
"Try a little bit better every day is our motto, and that’s exactly what we try to do."
Speaking of staff, the Aussie food scene has been suffering from a growing skills shortage and a high turnover for a while now. How do you tackle that problem?
I’m genuine with staff, I think that’s the key thing. This is certainly not advice to other restaurant owners, this is just how I go about it. We’re transparent, we’re all trying to do the same thing and be a little bit better every day.
If in doubt I always make sure to look after the staff. If my accountant says to me “Simon, you need to cut 20 hours”, but that means a staff member can’t pay his rent, I’ll only cut 15. I know that sounds a little bit silly, but I don’t care if I take a little bit less because, in the long run, I know my staff are my whole business.
It sounds like you have quite a positive mindset…
I set myself up to succeed all the way through. If it fails, bad luck. Before I was in hospitality I had a furniture shop, when I was about 20 years old. I know what it’s like to fail, which is why I make every effort to set myself up to succeed.
Try a little bit better every day is our motto, and that’s exactly what we try to do.
You’ve been in the industry for more than 20 years. For anyone reading this and dreaming of owning their own restaurant one day, would you say your experience has shown you that being a restauranteur is suited to some types of people more than others?
I’d really say to people now, the way things are, that the customer is too clever. They can see through BS and unless you’re willing to put everything you have into it, understand it, live and breathe it, then it’s not the industry for you.
Say, for example, you’ve had success in a business, financial or legal field. You’ve got your head really screwed on, but you fancy following a passion for food into the hospitality industry. Surely that business knowledge would be an advantage?
You may still find it hard. You need your financial knowledge, but you also need to have a natural generosity. If you don’t, the place just won’t be as good, the food won’t be as good. The “Hello” at the front door won’t be the same, the venue won’t be as welcoming, you know what I mean?
I’ve seen so many people come into the industry who are smart, clever people you can look up to. And you think they’re going to do really well, but then they short-cut everything because they don’t know how to execute it. And it’s because that natural generosity of being a host is just not in their nature – and if it’s not, I would just say don’t do it. Running a restaurant is a totally different deal.
And back of house? You’ve been a SKOPE customer for a long time, so you must know what it’s like to weigh important things like a heavy equipment purchase for the kitchen.
I always go quality, mate. There are some circumstances where people have to value cost things out, but I would say always go for the best you can afford.
Set yourself up to succeed. If you’re cutting all the corners from the start you’re probably not going to be in the best space to succeed.
Trust me, if equipment is going to let you down, it’s always going to happen on a Friday night at 6 o’clock when you can’t get it fixed until Monday. I don’t have a dollar figure in mind - I haven’t got a line item in my P&L – but it is costly and it throws the whole kitchen system out.
Systems in a restaurant are so important, there’s a structure to it and if anything in that process breaks down it ruins your night.
That’s why I say always buy the best you can afford. Not only as a business owner, but someone who has worked in the kitchen – I didn’t just start out as the boss, I started at the bottom - SKOPE has always been reliable. And that has always been important.
"I always go quality, mate. There are some circumstances where people have to value cost things out, but I would say always go for the best you can afford. "
The Hellenika brand has done really well at marketing its authenticity. What are your tips for doing the same?
If you look at our social media it’s literally me, in the kitchen, taking a video of a tomato or whatever. We don’t get an outside company in to do it, and I don’t know that much about social media, but the engagement is massive. People really feel this attachment to Hellenika and that comes from that authenticity. But that’s just that’s the way I am, I can’t help that.
It’s fair to say, isn’t it, that when Hellenika first opened in Nobby Beach it was a little left field. How much did you have to educate consumers?
Massively, it took 10 years off my life! The single hardest thing I’ve ever done was opening Hellenika at Nobby Beach.
Back in the day, it was just a tiny little seaside town. It had a needle exchange, a Chinese restaurant and a news agent. It’s a glamorous tourist destination now, but when I opened my first café in Nobbys you could throw a rock down the middle of the street and hit nobody.
With Hellenika, we’re talking about a little seaside town on the Gold Coast, serving Greek food, which had never been done, and on a shared plate. Shared plates are normal now, but it was not normal nine years ago. I had to say to people, literally, “The food will come to the middle of the table like a Chinese restaurant.”
We were also the first to say no BYO on the Gold Coast and the first to do proper double sittings. We kept our kitchen open until 10 o’clock at the weekends - which was unheard of – and we couldn’t get people to eat past seven-thirty! Then we stretched it to eight, and now we have people sitting down and having dinner at nine-thirty.
Given all that, how long was it before you gained traction?
Putting all those pieces together, in Nobbys, it actually shouldn’t have worked. And if you asked me to go back and do it all again, I wouldn’t because I know the unlikelihood of it working!
But you know what, on opening day it just went bang! Our problem was trying to manage the amount of people. There was interest, even if people didn’t quite know what to make of it.
The only marketing we did at launch was put a phone number out on a board on the street. It literally said something like “Hi, I’m Simon Gloftis, I’ve had cafes before, I’m opening up this Greek restaurant here, I can’t wait to welcome everyone.” And to this day I don’t know where all these calls came from. This was before we had computer systems, we were just using a diary for bookings. Mate, it was just chaos!
So you entered a gap in the market because you were following your passion…
Yeah, but I didn’t know there was that gap! It’s not like I said “Oh, here’s a gap – I’m going to do that.” It was like, “This is what I want to do,” and for some reason it just fitted.
I have to say you’re making it sound easy, but I’m sure it wasn’t. What has been the biggest learning curve for you out of all of this?
I’ve been lucky that my restaurants have always made money. They’ve always been so busy, that they washed over the mistakes. Even with things like bad customer reviews which could cripple some restaurants, Hellenika’s always been so busy that it’s almost become more than a restaurant, to the point where a bad review didn’t matter. It’s a force all of its own and I’m learning along the way.
I wish I learnt it all back then, of course, but you can’t – you’ve got to learn a little bit on the job. I wish I did more back of house office work, I wish I had more accounting skills, but you know, what can you do?
Being extremely busy sounds like a good problem to have, but it must mean managing your time is hard.
As far as where my time goes, food and produce is always the number one priority for me. If you have an off night on the service, a customer can forgive you if the food is that good.
I spend 90% of my time making sure that what we serve on the plate is the best available in the country at any one time. After that I support my managers, try to share the success and shoulder the blame. You’ve got to be a bit of a mediator, I try to pat all my staff on the shoulder - just try and bring some love to the restaurant. But my food is my number one priority and it always will be.
Okay, serious question now. What’s the best restaurant you have ever been to?
It’s an hour out of Axpe Achando in Spain and it’s by far the best restaurant in the world I’ve ever been to. It’s like the ultimate Hellenika. It probably only seats 30, with everything cooked over charcoal. I think it’s number seven or eight in the world at the moment in the San Pellegrino Awards. It was so good that I was eating the food and I almost wanted to cry. And I think I did, because I knew I could never do what they do!
It’s a pretty humble feeling eating a piece of calamari that’s only been put on a chargrill, no sauces on it, no XO pipis or whatever - and it’s so good it’s like eating calamari for the first time.
It must be quite difficult to keep up with food trends and chart a course…
It is – which is why I don’t do it! I stick to Hellenika Greek food. You need to show the customer and the industry you understand trends, but you can’t do anything that takes away from the authenticity.
Natural wines became popular a couple of years ago, so we put a few natural wines on, and in a new section we’re doing some chilled red wines. Scarlet prawns have become really popular in Australia so we now have salad prawns on the menu. But we just cook it on a chargrill like we did with a normal prawn, so a Greek family from the suburbs will eat it and still understand it as authentic, beautiful Greek food.
"You need to show the customer and the industry you understand trends, but you can’t do anything that takes away from the authenticity."
So what’s next for Hellenika?
We had a big year, renovating Hellenika downstairs, opening up upstairs, then opening a restaurant first at the Star casino on the Gold Coast and then at Calile in Brisbane. I would not recommend that to anyone!
But having said that I really want to make Brisbane a restaurant in its own right, I want it to be an institution. I want kids who come in today to come back as adults one day, propose to their partners or bring the kids. I want to build that legacy for Hellenika at Calile, so for the next 12 months that’s where I’m at.
But in the long term Hellenika is my baby, it’s my brand. I’d love to open a Hellenika in Hong Kong or something, but who knows. Don’t get me wrong, there’s certainly no rush. There’s a Greek saying “Arga, arga” and it means “slowly, slowly”, and that’s what we’re going to do with Hellenika.
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