Billy Petropoulos opened burger joint Boneshaker on Marion Road last March, inside Australia’s largest indoor bike and skate park. But Marleston was never the be-all and end-all.
“I had the ambition way before opening Boneshaker to eventually forge a path overseas,” Petropoulos tells Broadsheet. “China was always the next step.”
His whirlwind career as a chef and freelance culinary consultant includes five years as an executive chef for Bill Granger. He’s had a hand in opening more than 40 restaurants in eight countries including Japan, Korea, London and Hawaii.
It’s safe to say Petropoulos learned a few things: “The fundamentals of development, business-building, communication among suppliers,” he says. “Once you understand those, you can take them anywhere.”
For Boneshaker, he was looking for somewhere that wasn’t as “first tier” as Beijing or Shanghai, he says. He chose Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong – its fast-growing tech industry has it hailed as the Silicon Valley of China.
Petropoulos saw untapped potential in the largely un-Westernised city that’s home to more than 12 million people. “In Shenzhen no one speaks English, let alone has Western restaurants, so we thought it was the perfect destination to test the market to see if China was adaptable and able to understand the Western culture,” he says.
In less than a year, there are two Boneshakers in Shenzhen, one in Hangzhou and another in sight. What started out in Adelaide as an American burger joint quickly morphed into a “family-friendly restaurant” with an expansive menu and international prospects.
But burgers still get top billing. South Australian grass-fed-beef patties are a sturdy foundation. Petropoulos says the huge, “corner store-style” Full Aussie burger – featuring an egg, crisp bacon, pineapple and beetroot relish – “works the best” in China because it’s “something new” for locals.
“We wanted to incorporate a bit of Australia into China,” Petropoulos says. Because despite the old-school burger’s ’70s or ’80s heyday, “Here, I think it’s finished,” he says.
Homegrown produce courses through the entire menu, but Chinese diners can also buy products to take home. “We’ve built a market wall with 30 or so spaces for [Australian] jams, honey, oils – all the products we use in the store,” Petropoulos says.
It also works in reverse. “I’m trying to bring some Chinese products here, too,” he says. The Adelaide menu now bears subtle influence from its Chinese siblings. Find fries loaded with Peking duck, a grilled-chicken burger flavoured with Chinese spices, and Szechuan-style scrambled eggs.
Implanting Boneshaker into the Chinese market wasn’t without its challenges. The biggest was the language barrier, which Petropoulos’s Chinese business partner alleviates.
The word “boneshaker” also doesn’t have a direct Chinese translation. “I had to give it another name in China,” Petropoulos explains. If you’re hankering for a burger in Shenzhen or Hangzhou, look for 7/3 Burger. “Everyone can say the number; everyone understands ‘burger’; everyone can search it.”
Prior exposure to international business was invaluable for Petropoulos. “Could any cafe just up and go to China? I think it’d be very difficult,” he says. “There are a lot of deals to be done, a lot of manoeuvring and a lot of travelling – I spent half the past year in China.”
His ambitious five-year plan is to open an additional 20 sites in China, and another in Adelaide. He’s also recently established a consultancy company geared towards propelling local restaurants onto the global stage. “Because I’ve done it, I’ve set up a system and I’m in a position to help other businesses … make a move overseas,” he says.
China’s market has proved notoriously hard to crack for Adelaide exports. Will Boneshaker have a more successful trajectory? We’ll be watching.