We often hear both in our professional and personal lives that we live in the ‘lucky country’. When those two words are strung together, we all know exactly what it means; our natural wonders, our warm and welcoming attitude, our sporting prowess and our food and beverage culture. We’re blessed and we know it.
So when we hear of Aussies taking some Australian flavour overseas, and being successful because of it – we beam with pride.
Rob Langton recently sat down with two ex-pats who have done exactly that. One is based in New York, and the other in Los Angeles. They have different products, different markets and different ambitions – but they’re linked by their focus on Australian service for an American audience. Their intuitive understanding of their customers’ desires is a fundamental reason for their success – something that is perhaps not as well addressed in other sectors of property development.
Over two parts, we’re going to share their stories with you, highlighting how they started out and how they continue to find new roads to success in spite of the shape of the current hospitality market.
Grant Smillie – Botanical Group USA
“I thought I could come over to America and remote control it, but it’s a completely different world to Australia.”
Grant Smillie had already been involved in many aspects of the entertainment and hospitality industry before he entered the American scene. A native of Melbourne, Smillie has managed multiple venues, toured as one of Australia’s most celebrated DJs, has operated his own record label and ultimately has made his mark as a restaurateur.
To say that he seized every opportunity that came his way, is to undersell the control and input that Smillie had in shaping his own career. Following a degree in Marketing and Management from Monash University, his life was spent heavily invested in the music industry. During his 20s and early 30s he travelled extensively on multiple international tours, enjoyed a prosperous 10-year radio career on Australia’s Nova FM, hosted Channel V on Australian television, and even scooped up two ARIA Awards for his own musical compositions.
Through it all however, Smillie maintained a passion and intuitive understanding of the food and beverage industry. In 2011, he co-founded Ponyfish Island, arguably one of Melbourne’s most iconic and unique bars, situated in the middle of the Yarra River, before going on to found Melbourne Brewing Co. in 2013. The following year, Smillie formed iD Collective, one of the country’s largest independent PR firms representing some of Australia’s biggest brands in the lifestyle, hospitality, sports, fashion, and tourism industries.
Smillie was evidently a busy man, but it was around this period, deep in 2013, that he founded another business with his friends David Combes, named Botanical Hospitality Group. Their ambition? To develop and operate dining and entertainment concepts in America.
La La Land
“We were ambitious, and I think that our backers liked that. They believed, for some reason, that us two Aussie blokes would do a good job of operating a venue in LA. Then we made a lot of noise and all of a sudden everyone decided that they wanted to do something similar themselves.”
The venue Smillie is referring to is E.P. & L.P. – their debut American venture, which launched in spring of 2015. E.P. & L.P. is an Asian Eating House along the thriving pulse of the culinary corridor of Melrose Avenue and La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood.
“My goal was to build a team that represents the best Australia has to offer and bring it to the States,” says Smillie.
“With E.P. & L.P., we get to share our ethos that we’ve come to call ‘Life Cultivated’ with Los Angeles. It’s a lifestyle for the creative, adventurous, and spirited set, where you come for a meal, and stay for the night.”
Off the back of the venue’s success, the Botanical Group saw a new opportunity open up in Hollywood as the pair looked to capitalise on a scale that was simply unattainable in their homeland.
“You can do events in LA on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights that you just can’t do in Melbourne. Major Hollywood companies are having launch parties all the time for new movies, programs and special features – and they’re spending $100,000 plus. The scale is incomparable.” The 40-year old entrepreneur discussed.
“Our next project is Grandmaster Recorders. It’s an old recording studio which operated from 1971 to 2016 where David Bowie, Blondie, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, The Foo Fighters and Kanye have all recorded at.”
The 16,000 square foot iconic property contains a large modern-Australian/Italian restaurant, a recording studio bar and a rooftop that overlooks the Hollywood sign and the Chinese Theatre. With a history that cannot be replicated, this will be one of LA’s largest openings next year. Having first signed the lease for the space back in 2017, its opening has been long in the making.
“We had to spend a whole year in planning, sourcing assets, getting approvals, getting permits – we had to re-engineer the building so that it has the ability to hold 500 people on the roof. So, between the consultants, the engineers, the council meetings – well it’s an enormous amount of work.
“We were also due to be open by now. But this is no run-of-the-mill venue – we’re going to be able to hold 1,000 people and so we need a launch that is befitting the space. Without the Oscars, or the other high-profile events that this city normally enjoys, without any of them to amplify it, it’s not worth opening the doors just yet. I don’t like paying rent for an empty building but we’re going to hold onto it until March 2021.”
For the Botanical Group, it’s an absolute requirement for a venue such as Grandmasters to land in LA hot and sizzling.
“If you can launch with a high-profile international event, with coverage and A-List stars and all that, then I think you’re going to storm in and have the hottest place going around. I don’t think you can afford to limp into this town, I think you’ve got to come in like a big silverback gorilla and show it who’s boss.”
Ask yourself, why do people want to come to your space?
A venue such as Grandmasters Recorders comes with an easy story to sell. But the success that this social hotspot is sure to enjoy is not going to ride on the back of its history alone. Every moment and interaction has been carefully considered and tailored to the clientele – many of whom will want to share their experience with the world through social media.
“With E.P. & L.P. we had our “Where Love Lives” neon sign out the front, which heaps of people come and still take photos with. The whole Instagram-able neon sign thing has been a trend over the past couple of years in many new venues. It’s great, don’t get me wrong, but you can’t design a venue around a neon sign or those kinds of things; I feel like that movement is coming to an end.
In the new venue, Smillie says that they’re doing things a little bit differently; they’re more subtle, while still providing a photogenetic wonderland for a social-media-minded crowd.
“For instance, we’ve chosen monochrome lights to shine up the stairwell and many other beautiful architectural touches that we know will photograph well. It’s about not being too explicit, but as the photos get shared around, everyone will know where you are.
“On the rooftop as well we have the stunning view of the Hollywood sign etc., so there are a lot of photo moments. When thinking about the layout, we’ve had to be mindful of all of this and design a floorplan that doesn’t create congestion or have people falling over each other while they’re snapping some memories.”
The Tall Poppy Syndrome Is Real... In Australia
Between maintaining E.P. & L.P. and setting up for the launch of Grandmasters Recorders, Smillie and The Botanical Group somehow found time to launch their long-awaited take on an Australian Style café in S.O.L. (Strings of Life) on Melrose in West Hollywood.
The scale of growth and the idea of ‘what is possible’ in America, may be the greatest difference that Smillie can discern between his two home nations. We heard these sentiments during our interview with Michael Drapac (view the article here) and we’ll here them again when we visit Nick Stone in Part 2 of this article – once you’ve been successful, people in America want to help you achieve more.
“Certainly in LA, if you have an idea and a vision, you can get it rolling quite easily. In Australia, the tall poppy outlook is real. Often people will say ‘he’s only XYZ, we’ll see how his next one goes’. Over here, if you have a successful business, the phone doesn’t stop ringing from agents or investors asking how they can be involved.”
Stay tuned for Part 2, where we travel from the west to the east coast and catch up with Nick Stone, founder of Bluestone Lane and the Aussie responsible for revolutionising how American’s think about coffee.
You can listen to Rob Langton’s interview with Grant Smillie in full here.