Chris Lucas talks about the seriousness of food
“The confinements also had an effect on them,” explains Lucas. “It was traumatic and nothing was normalized. I don’t hold anyone responsible. People did what they had to do.”
With 500 employees at 80 Collins Street (including Society, Lillian and the lively Japanese grill Yakimono) and nearly 1,500 more at his other locations (the Grill Americano steakhouse in Flinders Lane opened in March), Lucas says that at Over the past two pandemic years, he has often felt like the captain of the struggling ship. It organized free meals daily for staff who needed them, employed two psychologists and paid the equivalent of JobKeeper to 120 foreign workers who were not eligible for government assistance.
“I had a deep sense of obligation to people and that’s why I couldn’t accept losing staff in any way. Yes, we pivoted to takeout, but we also, I think, moved from a restaurant business [to] kind of like a… multi-faceted social services/psychology company. Sixty percent of the time we were dealing with human issues.
At the nadir of Melbourne hospitality – a lockdown called just before Valentine’s Day in 2021 – Lucas says the local industry threw away $30 million in food. The stakes were high personally (the pandemic has cost him “millions,” he says) and for the wider industry, which is why he appointed himself as the unofficial spokesperson for hospitality and small businesses. in the media.
Isn’t there a danger, given the political divisions swirling at the time, that some potential customers will end up with a bad taste in their mouths?
“I think in life sometimes you have to believe in things and take a stand,” he says. “And you have to deal with the criticism that comes with it. I was willing to do this because I witnessed firsthand the destruction of everything I knew near and dear.
Lucas caught the hospitality bug growing up in a hotel run by his Greek immigrant father Con in Geelong. But his father’s death when Lucas was just 15 set him on a different path. Honoring his late father’s wishes, he went to Monash University, earned a science degree, and majored in pharmacology.
You can tell his love for science is never far away by the way his eyes light up when he talks about innovations in genomics. “We’re literally curing a lot of very serious long-term diseases like Alzheimer’s, hopefully MND, certainly a lot of different cancers,” he says, “thanks to mapping the human genome.”
After college, IT giant IBM recruited him and he spent several years working in marketing and IT. He lived and worked in Silicon Valley (Steve Jobs is an idol) and then made his fortune from a telecommunications start-up.
It was not until his mid-40s, in 1995, that he returned to hospitality, opening Number One Fitzroy Street in St Kilda. The Botanical in South Yarra was next, which he sold in 2007 for $16 million. Many restaurants followed, and another Melbourne location is in the works even as you read this.
This begs the question: why so much?
“When you’re a creative person, there’s no switch,” he says. “You know, I don’t even understand the concept of retirement. My father died at work. I don’t want to use the bad word – Rupert Murdoch – but he’s 90 and he’s still alive. Bob Hawke was still going 70… If you look in the creative sphere, for example, Spielberg is 70 and still making amazing movies.
But given how thin restaurant margins are already and how precarious the hospitality industry has proved, isn’t there a danger that its creative drive will eventually end in financial ruin?
“Risk is an integral part of the life of a restaurateur,” explains Lucas. “We probably take more risks in business than anyone else – except people in the movies or the theatre.”
The analogy with theater is interesting. Lucas may be a shrewd businessman, but he relishes the effect a well-designed experience can have on a customer, as a director could see his film become a box office success. You also get the sense that Lucas relishes the minor celebrity status that comes with being a cultural influencer. He rubs shoulders with a coterie of interesting, wealthy and powerful people every day.
Outside of the restaurant business, Lucas has two hobbies: fishing (whiting and snapper in Port Phillip Bay) and reading (he subscribes to The New York Times and The Economist and is currently reading a book on Stephen A. Schwartzman, the CEO and co-founder of American investment giant Blackstone). He’s an avid wine collector (a 1961 Chateau Latour magnum “worth $30 or $40 grand” takes pride of place in his cellar) and later in the week he’ll be heading to Burgundy and in Bordeaux with his fiancée, Sarah Lew, to visit suppliers and take a well-deserved rest from business.
As we wrap up our conversation, Lucas is optimistic about Melbourne’s future. The crowds are back to football, he is excited by the recent announcement of a new contemporary art gallery and he is confident that the city’s CBD will thrive again, if he can attract more people to live here.
“I love this city. Nothing excites Melburnians more than a new restaurant and being able to go out to four new restaurants – it’s inspiring, I hope, other people in the industry to rebuild, reopen and do new things.
THE CHECK, PLEASE
Lillian Brasserie, 80 Collins Street, Mebourne VIC 3000, (03) 8618 8900, open for lunch and dinner 12pm-10pm, seven days a week.