GETTING A GROOVE ON

Written on the 14 September 2010

GETTING A GROOVE ON

JULIAN Mero opened the first Groove Train restaurant at Riverside more than two years ago and the business has since added another three Queensland locations with annual revenue of more than $13 million.

Culinary entrepreneur Julian Mero admits he’s ‘a bit obsessed’ with the restaurant he has spearheaded into the Queensland market from Melbourne.

“My wife says if she wants me to do something at home, if she wants me to remember it, she puts the word Groove Train in front of it – ‘Groove Train can you take out the bins’,” he says.

“We came to Brisbane with one restaurant, we saw opportunity to grow, we saw businesses coming in and starting to expand and we really wanted to grab that market share. If you had have said to me when we came up from Melbourne that we would have generated everything that we’ve built in two and a half years, I would have definitely have said no.”

Mero says the first week of operation sent a clear message that there were not enough casual dining options in Brisbane and that the food industry had not kept pace with shifting demand.

“We opened on a Wednesday and on Sunday we had 600 people through our Riverside restaurant. It felt like all of Brisbane was coming off the City Cat and into the restaurant,” says the 36-year-old.

“There was no way we were prepared, I remember running out the back, cooking bacon and eggs and then coming out front and serving it, doing everything.

“When we first came we were the only ones that were really opening at Riverside on Sunday nights – I believed that at that stage the food business was set in its ways and didn’t realise the market had changed and that people did want to go out to dinner on Sunday nights.”

Mero hopes to expand to four more restaurants and eight cafes within the next five to 10 years.

“We’ve got about 120 employees and Groove Train would effectively do $13 million to $15 million this financial year, that’s just in Queensland and I think the brand will get stronger and stronger,” he says.

“What you have to do is get people who are better than you – better barmen, better baristas, and once you get a hold of those guys you have to work out how to keep them and if we didn’t expand our business we wouldn’t have kept them.

“I think the philosophy of people is not a throw-away line, you can’t grow a business without the right people there’s no doubt about that.”

Mero feels fortunate to have met so many influential entrepreneurs in his life, but for him the challenge of business comes down to the will to succeed.

“Entrepreneurship is about analysing opportunities, taking those opportunities, running with your gut and getting knocked down, getting back up, getting knocked down, getting back up and once you get back up make it succeed,” he says.

“The line between failure and success is so blurred it’s not that far off, so being a bit strong-willed, pushing it over the line and making it happen, that’s what true entrepreneurship is definitely.”

The Groove Train business itself was founded by Rocky Veneziano in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond 13 years ago, in a property that was sold to him by Mero’s uncle.

Veneziano holds majority ownership of the Groove Train group, but Mero holds 20 per cent of Queensland operations and encourages his managers to increase their financial interest in the restaurants.

“At Robina we sold 20 per cent to have managing partners in there – you can’t run a great business, especially in this industry, without having people who work there to provide that service, which is what we’ve done from day one with vested interests,” he says.

The capital Mero used to take on the Groove Train project came from years of business endeavours in the clothing and retail sector, travelling the world to source brands, styles and materials to distribute in the Australian market.

“I grew up in hospitality all my life, made pizzas and then I got out and went into clothing and retail where I worked for Nike for years, for Fila, and spent a lot of time in China, built some businesses in clothing and footwear and had enough, sold out,” he says.

The ‘ski boy’ from Falls Creek also worked for the now-embattled Pacific Brands before starting up his own business Loaded Footwear, supplying Playboy licensed footwear at 25.

Just as business was starting to get very tough with the likes of Kmart, Big W and Myer wising up to the fact they could source brands themselves directly from Asia, the South African partner offered to buy a 50 per cent stake in Mero’s business.

“I put my hand up saying I was happy to sell out, so I did that and went to the ski fields – I’ve failed before and I think there are certain stages when I was up in the hills where I thought about not going back into business, but you clear your head and you go again,” he says.

“If you want to leave a mark for your kids, then that mark is that no one can tell you not to do it. I disappeared for a while then I got a second wind, sat back and said what do I do now?

“I guess you fall back on what you know, my dad’s a chef and hospitality is close to my heart so I fell back on that and as you know doors open sometimes.”


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