Restaurant Reviews

Neil Perry: My plans for the Rockpool Group

As Neil Perry announces the sale of his Rockpool Group to the private equity-backed Urban Purveyor Group, Australia’s most recognisable chef reflects on more than three decades in the industry - and what the future might hold.

Neil Perry

The deal was signed off on Friday and it’s really more of a merger of the two companies. I was approached by UPG and it was simply good timing because my business partner David Doyle was looking to remove himself from the business. I’m approaching 60 and it’s a great opportunity. I’ve always wanted to grow the group and we really needed more capital to do that. The Rockpool Dining Group, as it will be known, will have at its pinnacle the premium brands: Rockpool Bar & Grill, Rosetta, Spice Temple, Saké. We then have some fun casual brands such as Fratelli Fresh, Munich (Brauhaus), and the Bavarian.

The other end is the fast-casual stuff. I’ve got Burger Project, and the other guys have just started Saké Jr and Fratelli Famous, and that’s a really growing segment of the market. I’ve got some other new brands in the pipeline as well, although I can’t talk about them yet.

Eleven Bridge sits outside of the deal. Essentially we sold the company that David Doyle was involved in. Eleven Bridge and my consultancy with Qantas and David Jones have always been outside it so it seemed the right thing to leave it there. Fine dining doesn’t make a lot of money anyway, but the whole group gets touched by the halo effect, so it’s very much the way it was before.

Why now? I felt it was the right time to get serious about building the legacy of the Rockpool Group. Most importantly, I can get to London now, I can get to LA. I can go into Asia. It’s a long-held dream. I’ve been trying to get to London since 1990 when I almost had a deal there. We’ve had several opportunities, but never quite made it for one reason or another. We were really close the week the London bombs went off and everyone got a bit spooked. That was a real lost opportunity. Then we got really close to taking a Spice Temple to LA about six years ago, and it fell over at the final hurdle.

But it’s multifaceted because we’re really excited about what’s happening here in Australia. We’re going to do a Rockpool Bar & Grill and a Spice Temple in Brisbane, we’ll probably do a Spice Temple in Perth, we’re doing a Rosetta in Sydney… Burger Project will continue to grow – I imagine we’ll have 20 of them by the end of next year. Saké Jr and Fratelli Famous have the same growth footprint of around 20 by the end of next year. And we hope to have at least committed to a site in London or LA by the end of next year – most likely for a Rockpool Bar & Grill. I really think the Rockpool brand will travel overseas. When I started it I wanted it to be the best in its class, one of the world’s greatest steakhouses, and I think it will be as successful in London or LA as it is here.

We’re going to rebrand The Cut [UPG’s Sydney and Melbourne steakhouses] into the Rockpool Bar Series, which is another of our new brands. I want to do a fantastic bar with burgers and simple things off the grill. We might grow it across Australia and the rest of the world to 10 or 12. We just saw we had such a great brand with Rockpool that The Cut properties should morph into them. There’s another site in Sydney we’re currently looking to sign for a Rockpool Bar Series.

A big part of the deal is taking our philosophy to a bigger combined group. I’ve got a thousand people, the combined group is 3000, and Tom [Thomas Pash, CEO of Urban Purveyor Group] and I want to grow it to 5000 people.

When two groups get together you have to look at what dominates. I think Tom and I have a similar philosophy. Yes, we’ll have to deliver to shareholders in the end, but I still think there are opportunities for us to keep our premium-brand status.

I’m turning 60 soon. I reckon I’ve got another 10 or 15 years left in me of going really hard. I feel young, I feel empowered by this. My desire is to make sure as much of the Rockpool DNA expands to the group. It’s called Rockpool Dining Group for a reason, and that’s because the guys can see there’s great brand value in it. Brand equity only lasts so long if you don’t deliver. Any kind of integration of two organisations really scares the hell out of people.

The way I see it, we’re in the nostalgia business. If we don’t create a great memory, the customers won’t come back. That’s the Rockpool legacy at this point. For me it’s a deal that’s very respectful of where I’ve come from, although if I wasn’t a little nervous I’d be crazy.

I never thought when I was standing in my first head chef’s role at Barrenjoey House in 1982 that one day I’d be able to sell a restaurant group that would be worth money. The restaurant industry in Australia has really matured over the last 20 years, and for business to value restaurant groups is so important for the industry because then banks take it seriously and backers take it seriously. There’s no reason someone should work 16-hour days, six or seven days a week as I have my whole life, and not get reward. It’s a rite of hard work and entrepreneurship, so I think this is part of a great story about where the industry is at the moment. I’m really excited about it.

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