Powering Forward with Nic Coulter

Key learning from Coulter include planning for adversity, exploring all your options and bucking trends when necessary.

When Nic Coulter opened a casual Vietnamese diner with partners Simon Blacher and Paul Nguyen in 2012, rapid expansion was the last thing on the cards.

Nonetheless, Hanoi Hannah proved such a hit with Windsor locals that it paved the way for the successful launchings of sister venues Saigon Sally and Tokyo Tina. 

Still not ready to rest on their gastronomic laurels, the trio – operating under the Commune Group moniker – stayed busy creating new venues and reinventing old ones. 

Unsurprisingly, more venues create more responsibilities, and no one knows this better than Coulter. 

As the group operations manager, he’s responsible for overseeing the operations of Commune’s five locations, including the addition of fresh venue Neptune Food and Wine, Commune’s first foray into Mediterranean cuisine.

It’s tough gig on a good day, but if that wasn’t difficult enough, he’s also responsible for helping a portfolio of lauded eateries survive a pandemic.

Delivery done differently

Commune’s own venue refreshes show how important adaptation is in Coulter’s industry, but the rapid growth of COVID-19 left many businesses scratching their heads as they considered what to do next.

As it stands, countless restaurants, takeaways and cafes have leaned heavily on platforms like UberEATS and Deliveroo to maintain business and cash flow that would have otherwise fizzled out during the pandemic.  

In the eyes of Coulter, delivery services aren’t necessarily the right solution for every business, though – for Neptune, he’s steadfast in his desire to focus on upholding quality rather than churn out food.

“We have decided to stay away from the large platforms to maximise profits and ensure product quality is maintained to a high standard,” Coulter said of the decision to buck the trend. 

Nic Coulter

Increasing profits won’t come at the cost of diners’ convenience, though.

Neptune is serving up its Mediterranean fare using Hungry Hungry, an Australian online ordering portal offering the same flexible pickup and delivery options as established food delivery competitors. 

Unlike its competitors, however, Hungry Hungry doesn’t charge an eye-watering 30 percent commission, instead opting for a much more wallet-friendly 5 percent – it’s inarguably a massive difference given the state of the industry right now, and is something more restaurants should look into. 

Plan for adversity at every turn

It’s easy to forget how far reaching problems are in the hospitality industry – if managing opening hours, cash flow and customer interest wasn’t enough, Coulter has needed to modify his work schedule around suppliers – drastically, in some cases.

“There has been some interruption to supply – some suppliers have ceased operation altogether and others now only have 2 or 3 delivery days per week as previously they would have had 6. 

“A lot of suppliers have also moved to COD or tightened credit terms which has put a strain on cash flow.”

Despite Commune’s rock-solid supplier relations requiring adjustment, Coulter is thankful that little has changed when it comes to marketing. 

‘’We have chosen to focus on local support and loyalty programs for regular and previous customers which has been effective. SMS marketing campaigns for our database and EDMs have been most effective.”

Nick Coulter does the books

But with so much uncertainty in the industry, it’s also good to keep in mind that not every approach is going work. 

“We did conduct a flyer drop, but saw little take up.” 

With this in mind, Coulter proves that it never hurts to experiment, but businesses should know when to move on if it’s clear that precious funds are being frittered away. 

Explore relevant financial aid options

Like many other businesses around the country, JobKeeper has been a saviour for Coulter and his partners.

By keeping staff in work, Jobkeeper has kept Commune out of hot water, helping ease the uncertainty of what the future holds. 

“We have about 75% of our staff on JobKeeper which is great for them and the business.”

“Each staff member is working roughly 2-3 day per week which helps them with having some kind of routine to their week. 

“Some roles have been repurposed but all staff are happy with the new model and the challenge it brings.” 

Hanoi Hannah food prep

Although JobKeeper often hogs the limelight, Coulter says that business owners shouldn’t forget about other avenues of valuable government support.

“We’ve applied and received the State Government’s Business Support fund.”

“These funds have been applied to rent for the August and September period. The application process was done through the online portal via Business Victoria website.”

Lift the load wherever possible

Making life easier is often about knowing where to look, and businesses without efficient strategies can scramble at the best of times. 

Coulter uses MYOB’s accounting software to manage the 200 staff that fall under Commune Group’s banner, but he recommends a few others that complement his needs as an efficient group operations manager. 

“I use Deputy for staff management, rostering and budgeting. Deputy is also useful for COVID-19 staff compliance. 

“We also use our POS inventory to supply opening and closing stock figure levels for our P&L.” 

Nic Coulter

Exploring options can save resources

Coulter’s work through the Commune Group is proof that business owners shouldn’t cling to tried and true options if their bottom line isn’t faring well.

With so many valuable options emerging in a fiercely competitive market, it’s instead a good opportunity to keep an eye out for opportunities offering more bang for buck. 

Complacency can cost money, so whether it be researching government grants, exploring up-and-coming platforms or easing the burden with tools and programs, Coulter shows that even if something works, there’s often ways it can work better.

Commune Group collage

Nic Coulter is group operations manager of Commune Group. Follow them on Instagram @commune_group

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