In Depth with Jenna Abbruzzese
Business: Our Kitchenette
You’ve had a couple of years out on your own now at Kitchenette, can you tell us a little about the decision to go out on your own (with your business partner of course!), the journey so far, and what it was like investing in your own business and future?
The decision to own my own business came about after years of discussions with my partner Alex. Our talks always revolved around the sustainability of the businesses I worked in. How could they last if they weren’t operating legitimately? What if they were audited? Would I lose my job? What would happen to all my staff? I constantly questioned the intricate operations and started to read a lot about general leadership, award wages and tax regulations. These are the issues I identified as being the biggest for restaurant and cafe owners. Now I look back on what type of employee I was and I think I was probably very annoying. I guess my frustrations led me to open Kitchenette.
When I found out my friend Megan (now business partner) was returning home from New York I knew I wanted to open something with her. There’s no one else I know that understands the true essence of hospitality. We’ve known each other a long time, since I was 17, we share a lot of the same values.
The journey so far has been tough, this is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Mentally, physically and financially. Interestingly my personal relationship is stronger than ever, Alex and I were married in January. My business partner Megan is my closest friend, a partnership that has endured and become one of the most important relationships of my life.
What has been the biggest learning curve so far?
The biggest thing I’ve learnt so far is that your business can’t be everything to everyone. Megan has taught me this. We’ve grown slowly and steadily over the past two and a half years and we have our people. Some people won’t like nor understand what we are doing, but that’s ok because Kitchenette is not for everyone. There are many reasons why people choose your business, I’m now confident I know why people choose Kitchenette.
Going from employee to employer at 27 was a massive lesson. I struggled for a while with my identity within my business and within myself. I was no longer a chef, nor a manager, I became a businesswoman. It was a while before I freed myself of the shackles of the industry.
As a young chef, I was trained by industry greats. I was trained to produce ‘beautiful’ food, using ‘sustainable’ produce, I was never trained to put a price on labour. This became the reason I no longer wanted to work in these businesses. You don’t hear people ask if your staff are free range. The issue that is only very recently being talked about in the media is the lack of value surrounding labour. No one puts a true price on labour and as a result, we have exploitation.
I’m lucky I’ve found a person who is as passionate about running a sustainable business as I am. Megan and I both share these values and it’s at the core of everything we do at Kitchenette. Sticking to these values has, without a doubt, shaped the business we have today.
And what drew you to an open kitchen set-up?
The open kitchen is a result of a super tight budget. There was a half-finished door frame in the space so we just tore it down and decided to put up a curtain. It’s great to be able to see and hear the interactions with the customers. We have made some of the most amazing friendships. The best thing about opening a cafe instead of a restaurant is that you see the customers every day. I’m so proud of the community we’ve built. Our customers are what motivate me to get up every morning.
You’re considered an innovator in the Fully Booked Women community and the world of food, how do you keep things turning over, keep them fresh and inventive in the kitchen and in life?The drive to run a financially sustainable business keeps things pretty fresh. I have no interest in staying on trend, my focus is on building a business that will stand the test of time, one that will outlast the fads and see us through a tough economy.
Although I still cook at Kitchenette every day my focus is not on creating new dishes. I love old fashioned European cooking, using the staples and treating the luxurious ingredients as just that, a luxury. Our demographic are a little older, they love a classic Caesar salad or some might enjoy a glass of wine with a simple toasted sandwich. My approach to business is old fashioned just like my cooking and our offering is very accessible, we give the customers what they want and in turn, we are rewarded.
Can you tell us a little about where you think we are at in the restaurant industry in Australia at the present time? What are we doing right, what should we be focusing on? Do you think we’re in a good place right now?
We’re experiencing a period of transition. One that will result in putting a price on labour. This will force people to make changes to their businesses and in some cases, we will see businesses close. Some people might say it’s just a market correction that needs to happen. This is of no comfort to those who won’t make it through, I understand there will be winners and losers. Business owners will have to dig deep and ask themselves why they want to own a business in the hospitality industry.
This is my segway into mental health. Empathy is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. If we do not have the ability to try and feel what the other person is feeling then we cannot begin to help them. Mental health awareness has a long way to go just as does equality in the workplace. True leadership requires high levels of self-awareness and these tough times demand the most in touch leaders of all. We should be focused on putting a true price on labour, cultivating a generation of industry leaders who value the mental health of their staff just as much as the free range produce they use.
The world of restaurants and food is constantly evolving and changing, especially in smaller micro-niches, where do you see the industry headed in the future?
Polarized. It won’t be too far from where we are now, technology will be the main driver behind the changes. At one end there will be, in fact, there already are, shopping centres filled with fast food outlets by well-known celebrity chefs. At the other end tiny owner-operated shops that provide a sense of community using artisan produce. The middle sized venues will no longer exist as they are trying to do both these things and its finically and commercially not viable. It’s so bizarre to me that one can build a model that is boutique or artisan and then simply try and scale it and expect to make millions without it losing all sense of hospitality. The labour will be correctly valued so the customers can choose where to spend their money, robots and vending machines will provide cheap and convenient ways to eat, traditional cafes and restaurants will be viewed as expensive and for the special occasion.
And what do you think the industry needs to concentrate on in these fast moving times?Hospitality. The essence of the word has been forgotten. The word restaurant is derived from the word to restore. Yet we line up to get into venues that blare music loud enough so we must shout to hear each other speak and eat food that has been prepared in factories. Listening to what our customers want, using our skills to deliver that through our business brings great satisfaction.
Could you share a few insights and advice for the next generation of young people wanting to enter the world of restaurants?
There have been many interviews over the past few years that highlight the positive practices in some of the top kitchens around Australia. This is great and the more we hear about this the more people will want to make changes but the reality is not all restaurants have three hats with bookings well into the next six months.
For a lot of people, commercial kitchens are still the source of nightmares, trauma and a level of stress that is absolutely unbearable. Three of the biggest issues of my career, issues that have affected me personally and issues that I have seen affect my colleagues ... #metoo, wage theft and mental health. The tough topics need to be discussed to create change and allow innovative business owners to flourish and grow.
My advice is work for someone who you want to be like. Surround yourself with people who share your values as it’s inevitable you will become like them. It’s not a new concept and it’s talked about a lot in the corporate world. Some of the most inspiring and impactful leaders I’ve had certainly shaped my future and the business we run today. My holistic approach to running Kitchenette is inspired by a wonderful Italian chef I worked with overseas. His ability to make each and every staff member feel as though they were special has never left me. I watched him teach an attitude instead of teaching a set of skills and it absolutely produces food full of love.
Interview by Raquel Neofit, you can find her on Instagram @raquelneofit
Raquel is the assistant editor of Vanilla Magazine. She writes about beauty, lifestyle, food and horticulture.