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Introducing Ivan Brewer from Restaurant Lessons

I am fascinated by business; by the people that run them, by the customers that use their services and buy their products, and by the staff that apply their time.

Fascinated by the capture of value, be it from suppliers, staff or customers, and by the entirety of their moving parts.

Why does one business stand out from another?

Why does one business enjoy more success than another? 

It’s a fascination borne of admiration and respect, yet tinged with frustration, and a hint of sadness.

My affinity for business has developed and matured as I have, following the permutations and evolutions of my career. But from my very first view of the world as a naive employee, I didn’t see a business but saw a fascinating eco-system of intimately co-dependent elements that make up the whole. An oftentimes fragile whole.

The first prism through which I viewed business was a cafe, I as the barista in Auckland. I grew up in Far North Queensland in Australia, and I knew not a thing about coffee. In fact, in the tropics, it seemed somewhat senseless to deliberately get hotter by drinking a hot beverage.

Yet even as I learnt how to contrive the perfect coffee, I came to appreciate the business design and the decisions that lead to it.

Established by Craig Miller, the Grandfather of coffee in New Zealand, the cafe was built for maximum productivity. Every decision made was leading to maximising the throughput – the number of transactions that could be completed per minute of time.

And it was busy. I averaged 3 coffees a minute for 7 hours a day, Monday to Friday. Back before the latte-art movement bastardised coffee and tried to turn cafes into a cocktail bars.

Upon reflection, this is a defining part of my career. Not only did I thrive with the people contact, I instinctively understood the two most crucial elements of Hospitality – efficiency and entertainment.

It was theatre. And I loved it. Every moment of it. And I was hooked.

Over the next 4 years, I would spend time in Italy making coffee, co-opening a Patisserie on the Isle of Capri, and had been invited to join a 7-Star Hotel, in banquets, managed their award restaurant, and room service, been part of the management of a high-end award-winning restaurant group, waited on Royalty, Stars of Business, Music and Movies alike.

I was on my way, and the addiction to Hospitality had well and truly taken hold.

And it was insatiable, but not in the traditional sense. I desperately wanted to know more. I desperately wanted to understand what made hospitality tick. I wanted to understand all of it, every segment. And I wanted to understand how to make them all work. How to make them profitable.

After having led or owned every type of food business, up to and including Multi-site, Multi-Million-dollar businesses, with 100 staff and more, I wanted to know more. And so, I began my journey in academia.

Anyone that says higher education has nothing to offer says so as a reflection of themselves, not of the learning that is available to them. For me, it was like a whole new world came into being before my eyes, and my addiction took on another phase – what did academic thought have to offer? How could it be applied to support profitability?

In studying my MBA, I only once received an assessment that was less than a High Distinction; through sheer effort and wonder at what I was learning, and a deep yearning to understand and apply it, I threw myself at it. Relentlessly.

And shortly after, it became abundantly clear that much of what I had been taught in Hospitality was wrong. Much of the operationalised information of consultants, much of the mantra of Industry Bodies was dangerously incorrect. And much of what academia had to offer was not known at all within the Industry that I loved.

And I had been taught by the best!

How could it be that we had got it so wrong? And how much of a difference could this new information make?

I have always applied what I learn and have been active in my industry while studying. This newfound perspective and questioning of the traditional techniques of operating hospitality businesses fuelled even more hunger. I had questions, and I wanted them answered.

How can Restaurants, Cafes and Bars be profitable?

Is there a governing logic that encompasses different segments, and the notoriously diverse range of businesses within them?

These are the questions that define my passion, that define my journey, that have come to define my life’s work.

Small businesses, in their full flavour and glory; from small solo-enterprises at the very beginning of their journey, to the new-age online virtual businesses, to mature businesses, across every segment and every industry, are at a disadvantage. They do not play on a level playing field. They compete in a grand game were the odds are frankly stacked against them.

This vibrant and wonderful business world does not have the resources of mid-size and larger businesses; the well-paid and experienced managers, the negotiation power, the accounting support and the technology, the taxation, and even the financing options.

Yet small business fundamentally defines the world we live in today. It defines the life we live, and the lifestyle we enjoy. For without Small Business, which comprise over 90% of all businesses, life as we know it would be entirely different.

Hospitality is no different. The SME Food Business is the Hospitality Industry. Without one, we don’t have the other. And without them, we don’t have a Tourism Industry.

And it is the humble SME that I chose to serve. To serve to empower, serve to allow them to compete. After decades of experience and a decade of academic research and pursuit, it is the SME that I serve.

I have a deep-felt respect for the risks that are taken in operating a small business, for the personal toll demanded by them. I have stood in their shoes, faced the same decisions, the same pressures, experienced the same highs, and the same devastating lows. I know, because I have been there too.

This is why the opportunity to write alongside Robert Bacal is such an honour for me.

Like Robert, I too am deeply sensitive to the ubiquitous misinformation that plagues the internet. It often angers me. Always inspires me too.

Like the great mistruths of our time; MBTI, Maslow, and Staff Engagement in business, Hospitality perpetuates their own; Menu Analysis Techniques, The Rule of Thirds, Operational Paradigms.

The time-poor, over-whelmed SME Manager and Owner are suffocated in misinformation ranging from self-serving to outright wrong and dangerously untrue. The gift of the internet, with histories collective information now at our finger tips, can too, be a curse. Poor information readily parades as valuable and it is very difficult to tell them apart.

Gifted as it was to me, this is my gift to the Industry I have dedicated my life to. Knowledge. True, experience and evidence-based Knowledge.

I look forward to sharing it with you.

2 thoughts on “Introducing Ivan Brewer from Restaurant Lessons

  1. Experience Design is at its heart the only truly sustainable competitive advantage a restaurant has at its disposal. Everything else can be imitated – we buy the same food from the same suppliers, use the same staff, have the same locations and share the same technology.

    I use it in a broader sense, as encapsulated in Service-Dominant Logic developed by Profs. Vargo and Lusch, and their central concept of value-in-context. This pertains to a co-creation of value between all stakeholders – the customer, the suppliers and the business.

    But theatre can be subtle too – as a barista I made people smile. A joke here, and a smile there and a persons day is transformed.

    Even in high-end restaurants, my irreverent nature added to the experience. But I have always enjoyed shaping the nature of the interaction to meet the needs of the customers. Sometimes what was best was not to be seen nor heard!

    Why do I say theatre? Because it is a performance. In hospitality staff members are very visible, and we have a unique opportunity to shape the nature of the interaction through our performance.

    But like all things, it needs to be used discerningly, and no one perspective suits all circumstances.

    My two great areas of interest are in Experiential Design, and in PRofitability. Seemingly contradictory, as are the natures of people.

  2. Thanks very much Ivan for the bio which was both interesting and…oh even a bit of a tease. I’ve long been fascinated by the hospitality industry, fueled by the many chef type reality shows, but I know almost nothing about it.

    So, I’m very much looking forward to what you contribute. As I said somewhere else, if someone can run a restaurant, I imagine running a “normal” small business just has to be easier.

    So, here’s my first question (it’s just you and me here – nobody else comments): You mention things being theatre: Do you think that’s a good analogy for the restaurant business? Is it a perspective that you think furthers a company’s success or would it detract?

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