“I was a person only my very good people or very long-standing friends would want to be around – and only in very small doses.
“It’s a great lesson and a great development space in life, but it’s not one I wish to go back to.”
To pull off the growth plan – which could also see Grill’d buy a business selling Australia’s other great protein love, chicken – Crowe knows he has to change.
“I’m having to undo and unlearn some of the things that arguably made us successful,” he says.
Crowe says he has always been very hands-on in the business, but admits that “as your business get bigger and you try to hang on to that expertise, by default you slow the business down”.
“I think what’s interesting is I’ve had a perspective change that is moving almost from sergeant to general, or in football parlance … to chairman of selectors.
“I’ve got to be careful that I don’t clamp down.”
Crowe spoke to AFR Weekend before a 10-day trip to Singapore and Britain, both of which are potential options for Grill’d’s international expansion.
Singapore has a thriving, competitive food scene, but Crowe sees an opening for Australian burgers.
During his recent trips to Britain, he’s noticed food chains starting to struggle in the Brexit-hit economy.
“Sometimes that means opportunity and sometimes that means a space that you want to stay away from. That very fine line is one that we’ve got to try to understand,” he says. “There might be a gap in the market, but then the question becomes, is there a market in the gap?”
The first stop on Grill’d’s overseas push is Bali, due to open around September. The brand awareness among visiting Australians will help, but Crowe wants to make Bali a unique offering.
“We want to try and dial up the emphasis around desserts, around drinks and around salads,” he says. These aren’t areas that Grill’d had focused on in Australia, and Crowe is hoping he can make the dessert offering work in Bali before bringing it back home.
“If we land what I hope we will, then that would change our business also.”
A few months before Bali, Crowe plans to launch an up-scale burger business called Williams (or it might be called Williams’; Crowe jokes there’s still an internal debate over the value of that apostrophe).
The move is both attack and defence against changing trends in the big shopping malls, where many of the 138 Grill’d restaurants are located.
“What we’ve seen in a couple of instances where a landlord has Grill’d … now often they are introducing another burger player,” Crowe explains. “So it gives us protection and/or the opportunity to sit above Grill’d.”
The first restaurant will open in Sydney CBD’s Westfield, followed by Melbourne’s upmarket Emporium centre and inner-city strip sites.
Crowe’s chef, previously at Shannon Bennett’s Vue de Monde and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, is working on the Williams menu with a small team that will sit separate to Grill’d.
“We can see already that some of the work they are doing there will have a trickle-down effect and impact the way we think at Grill’d,” he says.
Strong Australian stake
Keeping the Grill’d Australian business strong is the caveat Crowe places on all his expansion plans, which will be funded mainly by cash flow but also through senior debt from Commonwealth Bank. The bank also funded Crowe’s purchase of his former business partner’s stake.
Crowe would love to hit his $1 billion revenue target in 4½ years but insists he won’t “chase this like a greyhound does a rabbit”. Buying into a chicken chain, for example, will only happen if it Crowe feels Grill’d won’t be affected.
He argues the chain changed the burger market when it arrived 15 years ago, even forcing McDonald’s to go upmarket with its “create your taste” menu which it has since exported.
“We don’t even see ourselves as competing with fast food, yet there are not many small businesses that can claim to have impacted multinationals and made them change their strategy,” Crowe says.
“Our job is make sure they’re still irrelevant [to us] because what they’ve done is dressed up Ronald McDonald as Tinkerbell.”
To strengthen the mothership, Grill’d will soon launch a membership program called Relish, named for one of Crowe’s favourite sayings: “Cut our people and they bleed relish.” It will present offer customer rewards but will mainly be dedicated to helping tackle youth homelessness and mental health.
It is an extension of the popular “local matters” competition in Grill’d stores, where customers vote which community group will get a monthly grant.
It’s also a cause Crowe says is close to the hearts of his 4000 employees. “Mental health is the thing they are all very focused on.”
This month Grill’d will launch four plant-based “meat” burgers, using patties from Beyond Meat, a company whose backers include Bill Gates.
The burgers replicate the taste and texture of meat – Crowe insists they actually do taste OK – and are part of a push to have half of the Grill’d menu plant-based by the end of next year, from about 13 per cent now. The products will be aimed at “carnivores who want to eat less meat, rather than a vegan who doesn’t want to have a burger”.
March will see Koko Black open a new flagship store in Melbourne’s CBD. Buying businesses out of administration is an inherently risky game, and Crowe’s personal distractions stalled the turnaround of the business.
“Under every stone we turned, there was another little bug with sharp claws,” he admits.
The new store will feature updated branding and push Koko Black more into the gift space dominated by Haighs and Lindt. A range of chocolates co-created with leading chef Dan Hunter has also been developed, starring indigenous ingredients such as lemon myrtle.
Crowe sees international opportunities for Koko Black too, starting with e-commerce sales into China and South Korea; Chinese giants JD.com and T-Mall have already approached the chain.
The problem is supply. Because Koko Black makes its ingredients from scratch, its Coburg factory must be upgraded before sales can ramp up.
It’s another big growth play, but Crowe seems determined to make up for lost time.
“We have a strong desire to put our money where our mouth is,” he says.