What I Know Now is an interview series in conversation with leaders about the failures and successes of their careers.
When Ben Shewry and I speak on a recent Friday morning, he tells me he’s spent the morning painting the front door of his restaurant, “It’s pretty hands on here.” You might not expect the chef of one of the world’s 50 best restaurants to be doing such a simple task.
Shewry, 42, is the owner and chef of Attica, a restaurant in Melbourne, Australia, and one of the first restaurants to feature on Netflix’s inaugural season of Chef’s Table in 2015. Shewry was born in New Zealand and came to Australia when he was 25-years-old looking for work as a cook. His work started at Attica 14 years ago during a time of his life that he describes as being “insecure.”
Four years ago he bought Attica and under full financial and cultural control, he’s evolved the restaurant and its cultural, moral, and financial principles, into a business that runs counter to what most people perceive of the hospitality industry: he cares for his people—they work 48 hours per week—he doesn’t operate in debt, there’s a moral code for how the team behaves the moment they walk into the restaurant, and his respect and responsibility for the land he operates on and its owners. This model of business has evolved from personal pain, stress, and failure. He shares his learnings and way forward with brutal honesty and sincerity:
YouInc: You came to Australia with $500 in your pocket. How do you feel when you look back on the journey?
Ben Shewry: I don’t really look back too much on the last 14 years of Attica, because some of it was painful and I try to live in the moment.
It’s not that glamourous life that everyone thinks it is, eh. It’s not really that different from when I came. It has the same mentality. I’ve got a bit more to show for my work, but it’s been a graft. It doesn’t stop. I think, perhaps, the perception of successful people, when they reach a level of success, is that life is easier and things kind of flow and come to you. In fact, it’s the opposite. It takes a lot more. You have to keep fighting to stay relevant and stay on top of the things that success brings as well. We went from a staff of four to 42.
YI: What are some of the things you think about when you wake up in the morning?
BS: I go and check my emails. That’s a bit of a curse. I’ll read about how the night finished off at Attica. Last staff leave about 1 a.m. They’ll send a report and make sure the lockup was okay, and everyone was happy and was there anything that broke down. There’s always things breaking down. Then I’ll exhale a bit after I read that, so long as it’s fine. If not, I’ll make a plan to fix those things. Then, I always exercise before coming to work. Do a workout or go for a run. Then, always eat breakfast. Always. Get here about 8:45 a.m. or 9 a.m.
...the perception of successful people, when they reach a level of success, is that life is easier... In fact, it's the opposite.
When I wake up, I’ll probably look at my diary and think about what I’ve got on my day and what I’ve committed to and how I feel about that. I give a lot to other people, and I tend to agree to do those things in the moment. This morning I looked at my diary, “like, oh man, I can’t believe I agreed to do all these things this morning,” because I need to do other things [laughs]. It’s very seldom that I ever have a clear day, if I get one of those days, I can spend more time in the kitchen or sort out things that I’ve needed to sort out for months.
Then I get here, I’m usually the first here with my partner and operations manager Kylie. We start quietly. There’s probably 45 minutes where there’s not many people in the restaurant and you can think before the sounds of the kitchen start revving up. We have high-powered blenders and they need to run for large periods of every day, and the sound is really degrading. They really scream. It’s hard to escape that sound. That first hour of work is good.
YI: In a recent talk you said you wanted to focus on running a small business and take the hospitality aspect out of it. What inspired the shift?
BS: Well, frankly the hospitality business is a bit like the wild west. There’s a lot of people that run hospitality businesses that don’t do the right thing and don’t have much integrity about them. I don’t like the traditional cliché of the drug-taking shit or drunk shit or angry and violent shit and all those stereotypes we hear on the news and read in books or see on the television, which are perpetuated by celebrities. I don’t prescribe to that and I never have.
When I say I’m moving away from the hospitality business, I really mean that. I mean the stereotypes, the poor business practices, the super long hours. Sometimes I think we look into the past too much and we think this is how restaurants have always run; chefs have always worked 75 hours per week and there was always tension and anger and the book keeping was always shabby, or we had a leader who only cared about the profit and not the people.
I wanted to look at Attica as the best small business in Australia.
I’ve worked in plenty of restaurants, like many other chefs, where there are a lot of undesirable things going on. Some of the things that happen in the hospitality business, would never be allowed in parts of society. People would be outraged.
When I bought the business four years ago, I finally had full financial and cultural control. I wanted to rebuild it [Attica]. I didn’t want to look at other restaurants or other hospitality businesses or any other businesses; I wanted to make the best business I could, but I wasn’t going to be using the hospitality businesses as my reference point. I didn’t believe in it. I didn’t believe where it had been or where it was going. I only believed in it if the industry was going in a positive direction and owners were going to start taking responsibility for their businesses. That was my mentality. I wanted to look at Attica as the best small business in Australia.
YI: You also said you hire for heart and attitude. How do you gauge those qualities in someone?
BS: Well, it’s simply a guarantee actually. Someone would have been through an interview with Kylie or Matt, our head chef, or our front of house manager; someone has interviewed them and screened them and done a reference check. I’m the last person they talk to. I try to talk to everyone we hire and I pretty much do.
Eight or nine years ago, I had a bunch of people here, who were very negative and I found it hard to manage them, and I didn’t have the strength to manage people like that at that time. It really affected me psychologically and made me not want to do this work and not want to run the restaurant anymore. It took the joy out of it. Thankfully they left and things got better and I really learned from that experience. I said to myself, I’m never going to be in that situation again. It’s just too harmful.
You can tolerate mistakes made in the right intention, but I can’t take people who sulk and bring the team down.
So, I developed this interview technique. I talk to someone and sort of disarm them. I want them to feel a little bit relaxed and a little bit comfortable. I talk about what it’s like here and what counts here. But then I’ll say to them, “listen: there’s one rule I have but I’m really strong on the rule and the one rule is that I can’t have any negative attitude.”
And I’ll describe negative attitude and that’s basically [things like] talking back, arguing, sulking, dropping your head, coming into work grumpy, not being a team player, being selfish and not doing the little things.
And I say, “I absolutely can’t stand any of those things. They’re intolerable to me. Do you think you can come here and not be negative?” They’ll either say yes or no. If they say yes, I’ll say, “I’m going to remember we had this conversation. You need to know that if we see the first little negativity from you, we’re going to do something about it immediately and I’m going to bring up that we had this conversation and remind you of it, because I won’t tolerate it.”
It sounds a bit threatening, but it’s really laying down the law. You can tolerate mistakes made in the right intention, but I can’t take people who sulk and bring the team down. It’s different than if someone does something mean to you and you’re sad. If someone yelled at you and it was unjustified or someone did something to you at work and you’re grumpy or down, I want to know about it. But don’t come in here with a bad attitude, because we’re not going to take it. Setting that precedent at the start works well. Then if someone does drop their head, it’s about being able to come back to them and say, "remember what we said at the start? We weren’t kidding. We were really serious about that."
Either you shape up or you ship out. It’s as simple as that. We can’t have those types of people around. Some people have had problems in the past with their attitude. Most people are able to overcome it because they feel supported and they feel they’re part of something bigger than themselves.
There’s no good in just being ethical if your products aren’t good; you’ll probably go out of business.
I know that sounds full on, but it’s that there’s been a benefit to making sure we don’t have a toxic culture. Of course you have to show people what commitment to a good culture is: work and life balance, proper pay, a staff meal, listening to people when they speak, saying hello in the morning, making a good work environment, putting people first sometimes and not just chasing money.
GREAT PRODUCTS, GREAT ETHOS
YI: Was there another business that you referenced as a model for how you wanted to run Attica?
BS: There are a few inspirations outside of hospitality. One of the main people I found really inspiring over the years is Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia. I think he’s an admirable person. They do a lot of good in the world and take full responsibility for their actions. Patagonia is a clothing company, so there are a lot of supply chain issues and a lot of potential slavery issues. A lot of issues about the sustainability of manufacturing clothes overseas. That company goes to the nth degree to make sure everything is right. People aren’t getting hurt because of the manufacturing of their products and that includes the planet.
I like his ethos of how he managed people and he wrote a great book, Let My People Go Surfing. It talks a lot about work-life balance and that resonated with me. Plus, I think their products are awesome. There’s no good in just being ethical if your products aren’t good; you’ll probably go out of business. It’s usually a combination of a great product and a great ethos.
Then there’s my own internal stuff: How do you want to be true to yourself? When you meet the parents of your staff, do you have to divert your eyes away from their eyes or can you look them in the eye and greet them with a hug or a handshake? I’ve got a strong conscious and I need things to be right, otherwise I can’t leave here at the end of the day and sleep well. That’s how it’s come about, I suppose.
BOOKKEEPING IS VITAL TO SUCCESS
YI: What’s a recent failure that has helped improve the business?
BS: If I can say anything about setting up a business, it’s having the bookkeeping nailed. I can speak from experience, because prior to my ownership, the business nearly went broke five or six times, because the finances weren’t being managed and the owner was taking too much money and no one was saying, “you shouldn't take that much because there’s not enough for tax or to pay staff.”
The very weak link in the chain with every small business I’ve encountered is the bookkeeper. It comes from the fact that bookkeepers don’t generally have a high level of training as an accountant or lawyer. They often aren’t full time in the business and they aren’t as invested.
Over the years we’ve had a bookkeeper, staff doing books, my ex-wife used to do the books, I’ve done the books with Kylie. Then finally we found someone, who was pretty amazing at doing the books and that’s been revolutionary in the last year. We set our business up in a unique way: we like to not have debt and not owe money to our suppliers.
LESSON: DON’T OPERATE IN DEBT
My belief is that when you receive goods from suppliers, you’re taking the benefit of those goods immediately from the time you receive them. We sell them each night. We get the goods in the morning, we prepare food from them and we sell them at night. So we’ve got the money already from the benefit of those goods.
We get the best materials, because we’re the best at paying.
A lot of restaurants will take up to three months to pay a supplier for those goods that they sold on the same day they received them. That’s not good enough to me to drag suppliers out like that and treat them like a bank. A lot of suppliers will accept that setup, but I don’t think it’s good business practice. We pay all suppliers, debts outstanding, every Wednesday.
It basically means that we get a lot of good will; we get the best materials, because we’re the best at paying. When we say to our fish guy, “we want the best lobsters or the best fish,” he listens because there’s pretty much no debt there, and we pay and he’s always got the money from us. There’s a bond there. That’s a powerful and positive thing.
The key is having good management with the bookkeeper. Finally we have a bookkeeper who is outstanding at the smaller details, reporting, problem solving, finding mistakes, and looking at wage costs. Our bookkeeper has come from an accounting background, so we’re fortunate. The way I feel the hospitality business has been a wild west, he feels the same about the bookkeeping industry, so he wanted to revolutionize that in his own small way.
OPERATE WITH THE RIGHT INTENTIONS
I think making a bit of money is a byproduct of being passionate about what you do and doing it well and trying to take care of people.
Creative people like myself can be disconnected from the financial workings of the business. If you're a creative person, money isn’t the thing you like to think about, it’s the dirty. To have a team, which includes the accountant, the bookkeepers, Kylie, kind of looking at stuff on a daily basis and relaying it to me, or having a system where I can go on to any one of the devices, whether our accounting software or bookkeeping software, to see where we are allows me to plan ahead and relieves heaps of stress.
We were one way and we turned it around. And we started operating another way, and it paid dividends for us, but also culturally, stress-wise and financially. It can happen. You have to have the right intention. I never went into the business solely to make money. It’s never really on my mind. I love doing what I do. I think making a bit of money is a byproduct of being passionate about what you do and doing it well and trying to take care of people.
Other than that I don’t really know what to say; it’s fun. Everyone has their bad days. I do believe in changing your situation if you’re unhappy. I have a strong belief in that. Feeling sorry for yourself as a business owner isn’t going to help anything. Be pragmatic. Be resilient. Be positive. Be around good people. Eliminate the negative people from your life. If you’re unhappy with things and how they are, then make a strong decision and learn to live with the decision. And view that decision as the right decision.
RESPECT YOUR CULTURE
YI: How much time do you spend on research and what does that process look like?
BS: Research has become the biggest part of my job and the biggest part of a couple people’s jobs here.
If you’re working with Indigenous ingredients in any country, it’s your moral and social obligation to get to know your neighbourhood through its ingredients and people.
This country is so fascinating. It’s the oldest living culture in the world. Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal culture goes back 65,000 years or more. Largely in this country that’s a very underappreciated culture and aspect of our country.
We’re working with all of these Australian ingredients that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. Some only exist in the wild in Australia. Getting them from this huge country is difficult and requires a lot of time and a lot of research. It’s a fact to me that the Indigenous ingredients are connected to this country and the First Nations people of this country. It’s not okay for me to take the ingredients and use them. You need to research them, and you need to talk to the people who have ownership of the ingredients. I’m speaking about Australia, but really what I’m saying is, if you’re working with Indigenous ingredients in any country, whether America, Asia, or New Zealand, it’s your moral and social obligation to get to know your neighbourhood through its ingredients and people.
If you’ve learned about Indigenous ingredients in Australia, in some way you’ve learned about them from Torres Strait Islander or Aboriginal. Unfortunately, we have a society in Australia that really has no appreciation for our Indigenous culture and food because of the terrible past of colonialism and with the English invading Australia and forcing Aboriginal people off their land, and genocide, and children being stolen and women being raped, and culture being dismantled and languages being destroyed, and Aboriginal people being placed in missions and not being able to speak their language or practice their traditional culture.
I don’t want to be part of a hospitality industry or society that doesn’t respect and include Aboriginal people.
There’s a different relationship between Pākehā and Māori in New Zealand. Coming here as a foreigner from New Zealand, I had my eyes open to what’s going on. I take that responsibility seriously. These ingredients are unique and special, there's a story and people and culture behind them and thousands of years of history. I know someone can use them and not pass on the knowledge; it’s unethical business. It’s not contributing to anything good. It’s another way of belittling and degrading First Nations people in this country.
This passion I have grows deeper and deeper and the knowledge and learning is going to be needless. It’s going to be a lifelong commitment. So, that’s the responsibility that I feel as a leader in my community; I want to be known for trying to do the right thing, not for my reputation. There’s a richness there that the country is missing. Aboriginal people aren’t being included in the conversation about their own history, culture and ingredients and they need to be. I don’t want to be part of a hospitality industry or society that doesn’t respect and include Aboriginal people.
YI: How does that education get passed on to someone who is dining at Attica?
BS: We do it in a few different ways. There’s a set of shelves when you first walk into the door. Probably next week on, they’re going to hold a huge collection of books about the history of Indigenous Australians. Bruce Pascoe, who’s a friend, wrote an amazing book called Dark Emu, which challenged the conventional white thinking in Australia, which believes Aboriginal people were solely hunters and gatherers.
We want to do a display of books, which are around language, culture, and ingredients; it’s the first thing you’ll see when you come in. Plus, we work with an amazing organization, the Tjanpi Desert Weavers in the Northwest Territories, a collective of Aboriginal women and female artists. They make an income from artworks, which we have numerous of in the restaurant. There’s a bowl which is handmade, with feathers and the seeds of a quandong, an Indigenous plant.
Most people haven't seen these bowls, so they touch the seeds and pick up the feathers. If they're curious and ask, then we’ll explain, but we won’t ram it down their throats. There's a few types of people who come here. Some are knowledge thirsty and want to know every single detail and we need to be able to give them that. There’s people who want to know some details, and then there’s people who want to come, have a good time, and don’t care about the details. We'll cook for everybody.
In business, if it feels wrong, it’s wrong. If you lean towards a decision that feels wrong, don’t do it. Trust your gut
It’s best to lead by example and put it out there. We have to educate our staff on how to answer those questions properly. We write comprehensive documents about every dish, and that has all the information about the ingredients, and the historical knowledge of those ingredients. Then the plate of the dish and who made it, where it’s from, what it’s made from, what colour to use, how to explain it. It would be a huge missed opportunity if someone had shown a true interest in our Aboriginal culture in Australia, and we couldn’t point them in the right direction to start their learning. We want to be that spark. We want to give people a taste of a better version of future Australia, in terms of culture and our appreciation of that culture.
YI: What guidance would you like to share with fellow small business owners?
BS: In business, if it feels wrong, it’s wrong. If you lean towards a decision that feels wrong, don’t do it. Trust your gut. I’ve probably backed up on decisions that felt wrong and regretted it. Or, if you take too long to make a decision on a business or commercial deal, and you’re stewing, “should or shouldn’t I,” then it’s not right. The good decisions are an immediate yes or no. If the people you’re dealing with can’t convince you, then back out and don’t do it.