Empire state of mind. How three leading local businesses built their brands
What does it take to make a brand? Elizabeth Meryment asks three leading local talents how they created their businesses.
Christopher Thé was a struggling pâissier with a young baby and another on the way when he opened his first Black Star Pastry 12 years ago.
“I remember we opened it we were living off the baby bonus,” laughs Thé, whose pastry empire has now grown to include four venues across Sydney including the flagship location at the Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park, and next month a new venue in Melbourne’s St Kilda.
“We had no money to start, but I honestly think that what we were doing, unbeknownst to us, was we were going about it the right way,” he says.
“You want to build something that you would go to yourself, and build a community around that. I know it’s sounds cliche but building a business is really about your local.
“The best thing that can happen is for people to say, ‘That’s my local shop’. Once they have ownership of it, you have something. People really took to us, so it worked out.”
Thé’s is one of the great success stories of the Sydney hospitality industry. All those years after starting Black Star, he is now in the exit stage off the business, having sold his share of his empire to an investor, and having created some of Sydney’s most loved and recognisable desserts.
Black Star’s strawberry watermelon cake — featured on this month’s cover — has long been described as “Australia’s most instagrammed cake”.
Not that it has always been easy building Black Star.
“There have been months when I have lost $200,000 in a month,” Thé says candidly. “When you have to pay bills and pay staff, it becomes a bit like gambling. There is a line that you know you won’t cross. You have to take educated guesses about how far you can go.”
For Nudie Jeans boss Bryce Alton, building the famed Swedish-born jeans label in Australia has been an ongoing pleasure and challenge since he opened the world’s first Nudie boutique on Paddington’s William Street 15 years ago.
“Opening that boutique gave us the opportunity to tell the brand’s story and that combined with passion is the driving force behind the business,” says Alton, who has kept the Paddington boutique open even as other retail outlets have fled the suburb. “Telling that story is easy when you’re passionate about it.”
Nudie has become an industry leader in sustainable fashion, with the brand using organic cotton, paying fair wages for workers and offering a recycling program for old jeans, among a number of other ethical and environmental practices that put it ahead of the rag-trade pack.
There are now seven Nudie stores in Australia, 30 internationally, and the brand is sold through other retail stores including David Jones, and a large number of speciality fashion outlets.
“We have had slow and steady growth and never exploited that,” he says. “We have long-term relationships with our suppliers and our customers.”
Alton agrees that the Paddington store has had particular challenges, but says as a local himself, he is dedicated to keeping the space open.
“Paddington has been extremely turbulent since 2008 when consumers shifted to Westfield Bondi Junction,” he says. “Finally rents are starting to come down [in Paddington] but the area has really slowed down. But we feel it’s important to continue to support the area.”
Icebergs Dining Room and Bar maestro Maurice Terzini is another who has weathered many storms since his now legendary restaurant opened in 2002.
“Icebergs has been a complete work in progress, forever changing, but with the original goal to be great,” Terzini says, adding that certainly some times have been better than others.
During its lifetime, the venue has won and lost big-name chefs, including Karen Martini, endured poor reviews (as well as stellar ones) and had thin periods as well as thick. For all that, it remains one of the seminal and most-loved venues in Sydney. The restaurant now is part of the Icebergs Group, a band of exceptional restaurants and hotels that range from The Dolphin and Hotel Harry, both in Surry Hills, to Da Orazio Pizza + Porchetta and Bondi Beach Public Bar in Bondi.
Terzini says the achievement has been principally about serving the customer and pursuing high-end goals.
“For us our values have been ethics in business, wanting the customer to be king, being relevant in all aspects of today, be long-term and offer good manners,” he says. “It’s taken determination and [a sense of] never wanting to give up. It’s an Italian pride thing. We [embody] a love of sharing, serving, the arts, music and fashion … and most importantly us being Sydney.”
We’ll say cheers (and congratulations) to that.