Twenty years ago Barry McDonald, then a young New Zealander and probably the best waiter I ever employed, knocked on the door of the invariably untidy office at the top of my restaurant. He had come to apologise, he explained, in case there were any complaints from a large table he had looked after the night before. Although he had tried to give them his best he had been continually distracted by what he believed was the host's interminable clicking of his fingers, unquestionably the easiest way to annoy any waiter. It was only as they left, McDonald explained, that he realised that the noise emanated from the host's playing with his cigarette lighter.
Last month I caught up with McDonald, now 47, as he was on his mobile phone to one of the 80 chefs his current business, Fratelli Fresh which he runs with his younger brother Jamie, supplies with top-quality Australian and Italian produce in Sydney, Australia. Over an exceptionally fresh, authentic and good-value Italian lunch in Sopra, the café on the first floor of Fratelli Fresh where the chef is Andy Bunn born in Hull, Yorkshire, McDonald outlined his subsequent successful career from waiter to wholesaler to restaurateur to the owner of a business that calls on all of his previous experience.
"When I came to Sydney I was working in some of the city's best restaurants and then I met Neil Perry, the chef who was soon to put Sydney cooking on the map with his restaurant Rockpool. Perry had found a farm on King Island to supply him with really thick cream which was then very difficult to source and I managed to get the agency for the cream and the brie they produced for New South Wales. I was living on Bondi Beach and I think that was the best time of my life. The farm would only deliver on Thursday so I would only have to deliver to my customers on Thursday evening and Fridays. The rest of the time I could spend on the beach," McDonald recalled with obvious pleasure.
His friendship with Perry soon led to more antisocial hours as he moved initially into wholesaling fruit and vegetables to Sydney's burgeoning restaurants and then to becoming a restaurateur himself with a series of successful and not such successful outlets, La Mensa, Lulu, Fuel and Fuel Bakery. As the dotcom boom intensified he had the foresight to start www.greengrocer.com and more importantly to sell most of it to Woolworth's at the top of the market. MacDonald was locked in for the next couple of years and although he found working in a large corporation difficult, he believes it taught him a great deal. " I have always sold tomatoes because I love tomatoes but I must admit that Woolies have an amazing way of running a business and I still use the same method of key performance indicators here even though we are much smaller."
Fratelli Fresh may be relatively small but it is growing fast. Founded two years ago, it notched up a turnover of A$5 million in its first year which tripled to over A$15 million by the end of the second year. And as he looks for a second site in Sydney and one in Melbourne - "there is definite value in being in more than one city" McDonald explained - there seems no reason to doubt his new business's potential.
Part of its charm is the building, 2,000 sq metres on two floors, originally a printing factory and then a furniture warehouse which accounts for its striking doors and windows, with natural light on all sides. The ground floor is given over to a large, retail fresh food market which on the day of my visit included luscious Bethonga pineapples from Queensland, Sharpe family strawberries, 12 different varieties of potatoes all grown in Australia and tomatoes grown from seed imported from Sicily. Next to this is a large cold store where the orders are taken from Fratelli's restaurant customers overnight, orders which mean that the company is currently despatching 12 tons of produce a day. On the other side is the cookery school where that morning 10 amateur cooks were being taught how to make spinach frittata in classes that are free (and therefore booked up for the next three months) as the whole school is underwritten by Electrolux because they like the association.
Beyond the columns of dry goods upstairs - pasta, risotto rice, coffee, tea and jam made by McDonald's father from fruit sold downstairs - is Sopra, a no-reservations café whose success has surprised even MacDonald. "When we started I didn't want a café because I didn't want any conflict with the chefs we supply. But then the opportunity came to work with Bunn whom I really admire, and although initially I told him just to use our best produce as a way of showing the customers what our olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasted like, it has proved far more popular and profitable than I could have hoped for. It seats 55 but most days we'll feed 150 and 350 on a busy Saturday." Even the well-heeled seem happy to queue in these pretty basic surroundings.
Bunn's cooking and the charm of the waiting staff aside, Sopra's appeal lies in the fact that there is no menu but just one enormous blackboard on which all the dishes are written and prices that are far lower than most in a city where restaurant prices have risen significantly since my last visit. The numerous salad and antipasti dishes are under A$10 and the pasta, risotto and meat dishes range from A$15-20. But one rather unusual feature took even McDonald by surprise. "When we opened the waiting staff couldn't keep up, so customers started to get up to help themselves to water from the jugs on the side. The press picked up on this and we decided to keep the water on a trolley with the glasses so those waiting for a table could help themselves, too."
McDonald cites several reasons for the success of his new retail venture: the hard work of his younger brother who now does the early morning wholesale runs; his foresight in giving ten per cent of the business to respectively an investment banker, a successful retailer and an Italian who helps him secure the right agencies so that he has continuous access to the right commercial advice, and the fact that he has concentrated so heavily on Italy, a country he loves, and one which strikes such a positive note with so many Australians since 450,000 Italians emigrated here post-1945.
The success of Sopra, is however, down to more personal experience, he believes. "We only open for lunch Tuesday-Saturday which means that my staff work no more than 40 hours a week and have two days off so that when they come in here they give me and our customers everything they've got." When I ask him whether this managerial approach is a direct reflection of his own time as a waiter he looks at me, smiles and says, "Exactly."
Fratelli Fresh 7 Danks Street, Waterloo, Sydney. Tel +61 (0)2 9699 3161
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