Kylie Kwong is one of Australia’s best known chefs and restaurateurs, but her success still rests on a tight relationship with the local community. It struck home one night recently when she sat down for dinner at the restaurant she opened in May 2000: Billy Kwong.
“Half of the tables were filled with regulars who’ve been coming here for 10 years and I almost started crying I was so appreciative of their support,” she says. “These are the people who allow us to exist 13 years on. But we have to serve them in such a way and give them that personal service and remember their names and what they like to eat and drink in order for them to keep wanting to come back.”
Small businesses made up almost half of all private sector employment in 2010-11, according to government data. The restaurant business, however, is notoriously challenging, with low profit margins and a high rate of closures. Billy Kwong has proved to be an exception with its blend of modern Asian food cooked with locally-grown, organic produce.
“What you put out in this community is what you get back – I’m a firm believer in that. You’ve got be generous in the knowledge and in the offering, while also maintaining that balance with the commercial, with the financial, with the economics – it’s not easy to do. It needs constant attention and constant mindfulness.”
Kwong’s success has extended to three of her own TV series and several books, but finding balance is a constant challenge. Sustainability – the restaurant made the shift to local, organic produce in 2005 – is a core component of her ethos, as is Buddhism, although she says her philosophy is about living in the present moment and understanding that we are all connected in some way.
“In terms of having a business that’s profitable or making significant amounts of money with work or whatever – I have no problem with that. We don’t need to be paupers to have a Buddhist practice – I think that’s a common misunderstanding.”
Kwong says she’s always preferred to be the boss than the worker – a trait that goes some way back.
“My great great grandfather who brought our name to Australia in the gold rush days – he brought with him his four Chinese concubines and together they produced 24 children and that’s where I come from – he had a great adventurous entrepreneurial spirit and quite often I’ve thought I get a bit from him, it’s in the family DNA.”
Small Business Tips
- Have a business plan and rely on good partners with the right skills. “We need to marry the creative and the vision with sound business advice, sound accounting. I’ve always been fortunate – my mother who’s retired and is an accountant – has always looked over my business because that’s not my strong point.”
- Work on the business rather than taking on every role within the business. Kwong still sets the menu and recipes at her restaurant but says her key role is to manage the energy and help create the right vibe for customers. “If I’m in the restaurant, if I’m in the kitchen cooking, I get tired, the energy gets frayed… and I’m not in a position to make good sound business decisions.”
- Customers will pay for a unique, quality experience. Billy Kwong uses organically-grown native produce which is more expensive but helps express a culturally-significant story, Kwong says. “Billy Kwong certainly isn’t cheap and it’s certainly not the most expensive but I would like to think you come in here and you get exactly what you pay for.”
- Be prepared to change in response to customer demand. “What works 10, 13 years ago may not necessarily work now: moving with the times, observing what the market wants, not getting stuck in your habits just because you can’t be bothered to change them.”
Kylie Kwong is an ambassador for American Express’ Shop Small Campaign, which encourages Australians to support their local businesses.
Brendan Swift is a business journalist based in Sydney.