WITH MORE than 25 years’ experience in hospitality and 15 venues under his management – including one in beautiful Fiji – Con Dedes has never seen as many educated customers as those who come through his doors today.
He calls it the ‘Masterchef effect’, and you might be suffering from it.
“With the increase of shows like Masterchef, our customers’ standards have risen,” he explains as a plate of Nigiri ocean trout, tuna and kingfish with wasabi mayonnaise is placed in the middle of our table.
We sit in the bar area of Flying Fish, Con’s one-hat restaurant on Jones Bay Wharf in Sydney. Sinatra’s soulful voice plays from two large speakers, accompanied by quiet conversations from the tables around us and the gentle lapping of the waters on Sydney Harbour.
“People are a lot more educated than maybe they once were,” he continues.
“Now, they not only want good food and great service, but they expect a full experience: the music, lighting and setting, how the food is presented, how it’s carried out by the waiter – right down to the tablecloth.”
Next to come out: the Kingfish Carpaccio, yuzu soy dressing and jalapeño.
“It is a great thing for our industry because it separates the weak from the strong,” he explains, as I take a bite.
“Gone are the days – and I’ve seen them – when a good chef could mask a bad piece of produce with a fantastic sauce.”
Con was just 12 years-old when he started washing dishes at his father Starvos’ restaurant. It was the first Dedes restaurant and was based at the Western Suburbs Soccer Club for over 22 years.
“It set up a really good work ethic in me – taught me discipline, time management and all the things you need to be a good manager,” he recalls.
“Dad taught me to recognise quality in seasonal produce and how to work with the employees.
“He used to say just be good to your people, son.”
Today, it’s clear that advice has stuck. “Thanks, Sarah,” he says, as one of his team lays down another mouth watering plate. This time it’s the tea smoked salmon, creme fraiche and toast. Our conversation continues, but he still stops to say hello to every employee who walks past.
To Con, it’s the little things that make the biggest difference in a workplace.
“I’ve had refugees and immigrants working for me who have come up and said thank you for just knowing my name,” he says.
“I started out washing dishes. So I’ve got a really phenomenal respect and empathy for those who do it because I was there.
Con was just 19 when the opportunity arose to expand the business and take on the management of a new restaurant.
The Dedes name had already won great respect in the south-western suburbs of Sydney, with Con’s parents representing all that was good in hospitality.
So, when the family was approached by Canterbury-Bankstown Leagues Club to open a restaurant, Con saw his opportunity.
“Dad operated one business,” he says. “They did 100 hours a week, seven days a week. You could eat off the cool room floor and there was no bar staff on the till.
“I decided – myself and my current business partner, Anthony Costanzo – we would start up our own restaurant in the leagues club.”
Two soft shell fish tacos, coriander, cabbage and spring onions appear before us.
“I had learnt everything from my Dad but I was ready to expand the Dedes name,” he says. “I was 19 and Anthony was just 20, so we had a lot to learn.”
The Dedes Group was born and now boasts venues that cater for fine dining, have function rooms and there are even fish and chip shops, while the company continues to expand.
Con also has plans to release a Dedes app in October, the first of its kind in the Sydney hospitality industry.
“With the utmost respect, it has been the complete opposite of what my father did,” he explains. “I learnt the foundations from him and then expanded on that.
“What I have done is set up the systems and foundations for the group to grow. I have practised empowering my staff, resourcing jobs and then, most importantly, I never undermine my guys.”
THE FOUNDATIONS OF SUCCESS
In 2000, Con decided to focus all his attention on his business, knowing, like countless businesspeople before him, that getting the foundations right in the early stages was paramount to success.
“I told my wife Kerrie that you are not going to see me for two years,” he recalls as two skewers of popcorn prawns land in front of us.
“What I did for those two years was go about procedurally setting the foundations of my business.
“I learnt the importance of empowering different members of my team with jobs and tasks so at the end of those two years I could run the business from the outside in, rather than from the inside out.
“I now have a chief operating officer; someone in charge of marketing and social media; a team of people to choose the wine and produce for each restaurant” – he counts them on his hand.
“I am happy to get in and get my hands dirty, but I must go through the proper channels. My business is built on empowering my staff.”
EVERYONE’S A CRITIC
Food critics have been the lifeblood of the restaurant industry for years and one write-up could make or break the eatery.
When Con’s father’s business was at its height, the critic (normally a man) would come into the restaurant with pen and paper and inconspicuously take notes.
Now, food critics come in all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life, and they sit behind social media review sites like TripAdvisor, Urbanspoon and eatability.com.
According to Con, the key to ‘dealing with’ these sites is to accept them and engage with them.
“Dedes Group has a social media policy, administered and run by our COO, Lisa,” he says. “You’ve got to accept that it is out there and accept the animosity of it, but you’ve also got to accept the credibility that comes out of it.”
Two more dishes are placed before us: the cider braised Rodriguez chorizo, toast and the beet, apple, blue cheese, pecan, gem lettuce salad.
“That’s it,” Sarah smiles, reassuring us as we look at the mountains of delectable food.
“One of the best ways to protect the brand is to engage,” Con continues, “but we do pick our battles, so to speak. If we deem that engaging a reviewer could result in a positive outcome then of course we will try to apologise for whatever it was that made their experience not 100 per cent memorable.
“When it comes to customer complaints, we see it as an opportunity. Suddenly you could turn someone that might be adversarial and make them your biggest fan.”