How Nic Coulter went from dishwasher to restaurateur
Growing up in Melbourne gave Nic Coulter an appreciation for multiculturalism and food. But the story of how he became one of the city’s leading restaurateurs demonstrates his absolute determination to succeed.
Melbourne is known for many things: wildly variable weather, trams, and some seriously world-class food. Its multicultural population, dating back to Chinese immigration during the 19th Century gold rush, has shaped the Victorian capital’s food culture. Each subsequent wave of new arrivals leaves its mark on how the city eats and drinks.
In the 70s and 80s, the Vietnamese migrants were no different. It didn’t take long for Vietnamese restaurants to start popping up in suburbs like Richmond and Footscray, serving pho and other street foods. The tasty, hearty cuisine has been a staple ever since.
Nick Coulter loves pho as much as the next guy, but he noticed that the delicious broth didn’t make much of an appearance on the south side of Melbourne. So in 2012, Coulter, along with business partners Paul Nguyen and Simon Blacher set to change that, opening Hanoi Hannah in Windsor.
The restaurant was an instant hit with local diners always in search of something new, but for Hannah the novelty never wore off, and soon Coulter and his colleagues (operating as the Commune Group) were opening a suite of other restaurants, including Tokyo Tina and Neptune. The group even made a return north of the Yarra, with a 110-seat Incarnation of Hanoi Hannah on Richmond’s Swan Street.
So Coulter knows a thing or two about what makes a nice restaurant, and the difference between the original ‘little noodle bar’ that was Hanoi Hannah, and the large, architect-designed Swan Street space is noticeable, but the fundamentals remain the same.
“Obviously there’s the food, but I also think service is pivotal.
“The customer experience is what we focus on … generally making sure people have a good time.
“We’re in the business of selling food, but there’s a lot more that goes into a restaurant. The layout, the music, the lighting.”
For Coulter it’s the shape of the whole thing that really matters more than any single element or, as he puts it: “People might not necessarily remember what they ate or what the drank, but they remember having a good time, being in a nice environment and hanging out with their friends. That’s the key”.
But hospitality is a famously fickle business, with a high failure rate for new businesses and thin margins, and Coulter’s the guy responsible for staying across it all.
“I’m the group ops manager, so essentially I’m responsible for the operations of all five locations,” Coulter said.
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like to get hands on when he has the opportunity.
“I’m still on the floor quite a lot – dealing with customers most nights of the week. And then I also have to be in the backend, watching everything as well, making sure that the business is running smoothly and is profitable.
“It’s important to see the real-time cash position of all those restaurants.
“Having on time, accurate reporting weekly helps, and MYOB being cloud-based means I can access it from anywhere, no matter which site I’m at, at any time.”
More specifically, Coulter said, is the ability to manage payroll while remaining compliant with any new legislation that might impact wages or super.
“Staffing wage costs are our biggest expense – somewhere between 30 and 40 percent – so obviously it’s a key part of our business and has to be managed right.
As someone who’s been on the journey from one restaurant to an entire portfolio, Coulter’s aware of the importance of scaling sustainably.
“We’ve grown from 15 staff to close to 200, and there’s challenges that come with that,” he said.
Not only is there the sheer number of staff spread across five sites to look after, hospitality is also a rapidly changing environment – everything comes and goes – from seasonal produce through to foodie trends.
That means there’s a lot for Coulter to stay on top of.
“We’re always evolving. I’m not sitting behind a desk all day, everyday.
“There are a lot of different challenges, and there’s always something new. It’s a fast-paced industry, and having MYOB being able to match us for pace is really pivotal.”
And while Coulter is clearly up for the challenge and the hard work, he also recognises the importance of reflection.
“You’re in a full restaurant, everyone’s eating nice food and enjoying themselves, you look back and think, ‘This is what I’ve created’ – there’s definitely a sit back moment.”
Not that Coulter will be sitting back for long. There’s always another plan on the horizon.
“We want to keep doing what we’re doing, always evolving.
“I think we’d like to open up a restaurant in Melbourne city.
“That’s probably the next step for us.”