Simon Crowe Grill’d on business and franchise success

Simon Crowe, Grill'd founder

We grill’d entrepreneur Simon Crowe about his booming burger business to find out why everyone’s lining up to have a taste of his buns.

Simon Crowe is a hands-on business man. Though he’s the CEO of a chain of successful restaurants, has more than 500 staff working under him, he’s still very much in touch with the roots of his business. Literally. When Dynamic Business met Crowe for this story, he was carefully explaining the origins of the potatoes they use for their chips to one of the store workers. FYI, apparently the best potatoes are harvested in February.

It’s this kind of hands on action that makes Grill’d, the more than 50 store burger chain that’s gradually taking over Australian takeaway, really stand out from the crowd of ‘fast food restaurants’ that used to dominate the industry. That, and the fact that going to Grill’d is just fun. “We try to make it that way,” Crowe laughs. “There’s undoubtedly a serious side to it, I think there has to be when you’re dealing with food, but I think what really makes a difference with a business is people, and what we term the ‘Grill’d experience’. Everyone talks about the customer, but we try not to talk about the customer. We try to talk about our people and if we can get them to be engaged then hopefully it creates something that’s a bit different.”

Building the layers

Creating something a lot different was the mission behind Grill’d and Crowe’s initial business plan in 2003. Having worked for bigger companies for a number of years, the then 31-year-old (now 39) was determined to get his own business off the ground. After kicking around a number of different ideas, and writing business plan after business plan, Crowe was sitting in a bar one night with a group of close friends complaining about there not being a place where they could get a decent burger. “The burger landscape in Australia was devoid of choice. It was entirely dominated by multinationals that had been dumbed down and had become fast food only. There wasn’t anything that harked back to the past,” Crowe says. His friends immediately put their support behind him and his idea for a healthy burger chain. “For me it looked very obvious, but it was scary because food wasn’t my expertise,” he admits.

Despite this, setting off on his own was something that Crowe had been aching to do. “Dad was a small business owner and I knew very early on that I wanted to have my own business because that’s just what he did,” he says.

Having worked for Procter and Gamble for a number of years, followed by a stint with Fosters International, selling the Australian ideal to North and South America, Crowe returned from the States itching to get something happening. “I’d been in a state where I knew I wanted something of my own. I was looking and searching so I was already very driven to get a business plan together once the idea came to me. Once those guys in the pub said come on, you’ve been talking about it forever, do it, I did.”

Choosing the sauce

Crowe jumped straight into getting his idea off the ground. “Fear of failure is something that the Australian psyche looks at in a negative way. To overcome that is probably one of the proudest things I’ve ever done.”

With a plan in hand, Crowe spent the next few months until he opened the first store in Hawthorne VIC in March 2004, learning more and more about the business and adding in the final finishing touches to his business plan. After coming up with the plan in mid-2003 and quitting Fosters that September, he thought he was ready to go. His first site for the restaurant then fell over. “These things happen for a reason. With the benefit of hindsight, my business plan wasn’t well enough finessed that September. The details around supply chains weren’t appropriately addressed and if it had happened when I expected, I think it might have failed.  The extra months gave me time to delve into it in far greater detail with a clearer perspective and a clearer vision. And I think that was actually key to the start of our journey.”

With mere months from idea to inception, Crowe spent every waking moment learning everything he had to about the business to ensure that his was a success. “Friends put me in touch with chefs and they helped me enormously.  We had the most wonderful Saturday afternoons as a friend of mine was a chef in a restaurant that wasn’t open Saturday days. We’d go every week for six or eight weeks, and every time I’d bring a different group of friends with me and we’d trial burgers the chef was making. We’d critique them, talk about them, we’d drink beer, and if I look back it was probably the most romantic aspect of starting a business.”

Not having worked in food before, there was plenty that Crowe had to learn. “I think everything’s difficult when you first start because it’s all conscious. It’s like driving a car. At first it’s abnormal and strange and then after a while you don’t know how you get from work to home. There’s no question that from the early days, everything felt robotic and difficult. Suddenly it just clicks and becomes quite easy,” Crowe says.

Having help was one of the most crucial parts to getting started. “We are lucky because we do use our suppliers and our partners to help us significantly. Generally speaking we’ve got small artisans that are making our bread, or even mincing the meat and sometimes providing the fruit and vegetables. When those guys are passionate about what they are and we’re passionate about the end product, the relationship is pretty buoyant.”

No burger without the bun

While Crowe is the one leading the charge around the country, he knows that it’s his staff and friends that have helped him get there, with his rule that the customer isn’t always right. “People often, particularly in retail, talk about the customer as king. Well the customer isn’t king, your people are king and if you can make that distinction, then you realise that your people are your greatest asset. You should never perceive them as negative. They’re the ones who will always deal with and serve the customer.”

He also recognises where he needs his shortcomings to be met. “My skill and strength is more about interpersonal relationships and yet pleasingly I can put a team around me who can provide discipline when sometimes I don’t have it, they can provide structure where I might not and they have operation skills that I might not have.”

After opening five successful stores, Crowe decided to franchise. Despite the fact that handing over the reigns was difficult, (“it was realising that instead of influencing people directly you have to influence people to influence people”), he’s never been prouder of what his partners have been able to achieve.

“Our franchise partners have to be the heroes of this business as they have to be the ones that actually lead our people directly and they’re the ones that serve our many guests every week. So for me, I think it’s about aligning values and how we can understand to help people meet their career and life goals. If we get that match right, we can actually create something that’s special.”

Despite the growth in his business, Crowe is determined not to lose track of these original values. “In this country in particular I don’t think many businesses in food have successfully scaled up and not dumbed down. They’ve all lost their soul, or they become vessels that focus on commercial success but they’re not about longevity they’re not about brand, they’re not passion they’re not about a soul. We want to make sure we do things differently.”

Dropping the griddle

No new business venture story would be complete without stories of mistakes early on in the piece. For Crowe, it was jumping into signing onto a new property he wasn’t familiar with too early. “Irrespective of our business model, irrespective of our people, if we get the wrong property, we’re behind the eight ball and generally doomed to fail,” he says.

The fifth property that they leased was their first in a shopping centre and the first on the other side of Melbourne. “When you have more than one variable changing at any time, you actually put that restaurant or business at risk, because you don’t know what the levers are you need to pull to make it work. It was our fifth restaurant but had it been our first, second or third, the business would have been broke,” Crowe admits.

The Grill’d team also had some initial problems with some early franchisees who weren’t fitting into the business’ culture. “You need to act on that pretty quickly because otherwise great people suffer when somebody who’s not great is allowed to roam free,” he says.

Despite these problems, Crowe has overcome and learnt from early mistakes. His clarity of vision now regarding the business and its values are so clearly evident in the passionate way that he speaks about all aspects of Grill’d: from fitting out a store, to hiring new staff. It’s obviously also something that’s rubbing off on his employees. “I had two young guys who had been with me for three years through their university days pull me aside and told me that they had grown dramatically through Grill’d.  They wanted to thank me for giving them that opportunity and to say that they had got confidence in themselves, gained leadership skills and that their peers and even their mums saw them differently at home. That was one of my proudest moments.”

With accolades including Emerging Franchisor of the year (2009, 2010), Australian Retailer of the Year (2010, 2011) and the BRW Fast 100 (2010), new store locations being scouted in Sydney and a new menu launching in March, Grill’d is becoming a silent stalwart of the burger industry in Australia. “That’s our challenge,” Crowe admits. “To get big and stay small. We’ll never be on TV, we’ll never be a mainstream brand as it relates to our communication strategy. What we want to do is be legitimately local, a legitimate part of local fabric and not an impostor to any community.”

Chatting easily with the store manager in between shots, Crowe evidently takes a keen interest in every aspect of his eight-year-old business. It won’t be surprising if we see Grill’d pop up on international ground some time soon and with a dedicated team, a strong and idealistic vision and most importantly an incredibly tasty product, this is one burger joint with the lot.

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