A personal tragedy led prominent hospitality figure, Ramzey Choker, to reimagine what was possible in his industry. The result? The Grounds of Alexandria – an immersive, acre-sized venue in Sydney’s Inner West that continues to defy categorisation and attract crowds nearly five years on.
From a very young age, Choker worked in his father’s Alexandria-based company, Downton & Dyer – in addition to providing dry and frozen goods to bars, restaurants and leading caterers, it was a key supplier for the Sydney Olympics Games in 2000. Ramzey’s first foray into the business ownership came at the age of 16 when he founded Shop For You, a grocery delivery service operating within his local neighbourhood. Aged 19, he launched his second venture: Healthy & Delicious, a café located at Sydney’s Bondi Beach.
Thereafter, he operated multiple hospitality businesses including an Oportos outlet in Bondi, gourmet Italian food brand Salt Meats Cheese and produce supplier Raw Ingredients. When Downton & Dyer fell on tough times during the GFC, Choker sold Bacco Wine Bar Pasticceria – then his sole venture – for $2.8 million and invested everything in his father’s company, eager to keep it afloat and build on its thirty-year legacy. However, he and his family were dealt a devastating double blow when Downton & Dyer folded in 2011 and then, shortly afterwards, his father passed away from cancer.
Determined to reverse his family’s ailing fortunes, as well as honour his father’s memory, Choker borrowed $600,000 from his friends and partnered with coffee roaster Jack Hanna to transform an abandoned warehouse and carpark, just two doors down from where Downton & Dyer stood, into a thriving urban sanctuary. Opening its doors in April 2012, The Grounds of Alexandria is a diverse business with many, many moving parts – in addition to being a café and restaurant, it’s an artisan bakery, coffee roastery, sustainable garden, florist, animal farm, education facility and (on weekends) a marketplace.
Choker spoke to Dynamic Business about the genesis of The Grounds of Alexandria; his partnership with co-founder Hanna; the secret to the business’ ongoing success; and future plans for the growing brand.
Dynamic Business: How did you bounce back following personal tragedy?
Choker: The loss of my father and his business hit my whole family emotionally and financially but at the same time it proved to be a really empowering experience. When you have everything (money, businesses, houses, cars, etc), everyone wants to be your friend… but when you suddenly go broke and lose everything, very few people stick around and you begin to realise who does and doesn’t believe in you enough to help you get back on your feet. This forced me to discover who I really was and to re-evaluate what was truly important to me.
I began to experience an inner silence, which enabled me to think, feel and question. Before long, fuelled by memories of growing up on my family’s farm in northern NSW, I was envisioning truly meaningful places and spaces – something I believed was lacking in Australia. At the time, there was no one else in my life seeking to influence my vision, so I was able to clearly form my ideas and pursue them without interference.
The concept for The Grounds was born out of a desire to create something great, not only for the community, but the whole country – a business defined by places and spaces where people could interact and reconnect. We live in a world that moves too fast and, to some degree, we’ve lost the sense of connection with people.
Aside from forming this clear vision, there were two quotes on crisis that helped me bounce back and move forward:
“Remember, too, that all who succeed in life get off to a bad start, and pass through many heartbreaking struggles before they ‘arrive’. The turning point in the lives of those who succeed usually comes at some moment of crisis, through which they are introduced to their ‘other selves.’” (Napoleon Hill)
“Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.” (Dale Carnegie)
Dynamic Business: What saw you team up with Jack Hanna?
Choker: I’m always looking to learn from those who are the absolute best in their field. At the time when I was planning to open Bacco in Chifley Tower, I Googled Australia’s best barista and Jack came up. I simply picked up the phone and told him I wanted to learn how to make amazing coffee and so for three months he came to my house and taught me on a machine he’d recommended.
When it came to opening Bacco, Jack was running his own wholesale roasting business called Jack and The Bean and wanted his coffee beans available there but I decided against it and opted to use a different brand. Despite my choice, Jack came in and jumped on the machines for weeks using someone else’s coffee to help me when it opened, which was a true showing of his character and so our business relationship grew from there.
Jack’s a serious coffee expert and incredibly business savvy – he’s able to lead the wholesale and financial side of the business while I can inject creativity and ideas into building the places and spaces.
Dynamic Business: What success has the business enjoyed?
Choker: When the business first opened, Jack and I forecast 150 guests per day but within six months we were averaging 1,000. These days, we welcome over 15,000 people through our doors each week. To accommodate these numbers, we employ over 300 staff from chefs, baristas, bakers and bartenders to gardeners, event planners, stylists and other in-house creatives.
Year on year, revenue growth has been exponential with 200% in years one and two, 100% in year three, and 50% in year four. Due to the limitations on what we can actually do with the physical site at Alexandria, we’re now sitting at 30%.
Our wholesale division is also going well – we have a portfolio of 40 wholesale coffee customers and 25 stores using The Grounds bread. A key focus, this year, is on growing this side of the business.
On a more personal level, there’s nothing greater than being able to say you created and built something from scratch that harnesses the talent of so many people and serves so many guests.
Dynamic Business: To what do you and Hanna attribute this success?
Choker: Firstly, our continued desire to create phenomenal spaces and experiences that enrich the lives of our guests. Our USP is the beauty of The Grounds – in fact, everything we create is designed to be beyond beautiful because we don’t want to be second best.
Secondly, our team of talented staff who believe in – and continue bring to life – our vision. I’m grateful to be working with my sister, Caroline, who is our interior designer and her partner Vince, who is the architect for everything we do. I honestly believe they’re up there with the best in the world. They’ve imbued every part of The Grounds with beauty in a way that relates back to my vision.
Dynamic Business: Is Australia’s hospitality industry innovative?
Choker: There’s a lot of people doing good things in the local industry but I don’t believe we’re truly innovative and creative. There’s really only 2 or 3 standout venues to my mind – off the top of my head, there’s Merivale and an international hotel chain. Most just try to copy and replicate others’ success, with no original purpose or meaning. It will be interesting to see where they are in 5 years. I think we throw around the words ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ a little too freely in this industry – there are too few doing it properly. To truly understand how to think creatively, I went and studied with one of the world’s best, Edward de Bono roughly 3 years ago.
Dynamic Business: What does the future hold for The Grounds?
Choker: Jack and I are committed to improving the Alexandria space and further developing our offering. As part of this undertaking, we’re increasing our focus on education this year. Not too long ago, we began sharing our areas of expertise with guests with masterclasses in food, florals and styling, and we’ll be ramping up our efforts in this space with coffee programs and much more.
Beyond the Alexandria space, we’ll be focusing on creating new sanctuaries, both in the city and up north. We’ll also be introducing an entrepreneurial element to The Grounds with an avenue for kids to learn about business and become inspired to launch their own start-ups.
Business has always been in my blood and I love creating things. The Grounds is just a single platform to do that and I’m just getting started.