24 Hours with
The Lucas Group

Words: Peter Barrett
Photography: Isamu Sawa

If you haven’t heard of The Lucas Group, you know its restaurants. Chin Chin, Baby and Kong are Melbourne venues so popular they seem to have magic dust sprinkled on them, but the truth behind their success is perhaps more surprising, and certainly more calculated. Behind these bustling dining rooms is a complex, far-reaching machine, revolving around an enormous off-site kitchen that operates day and night. Several months ago, we spent 24 hours with the group to discover what makes it work. With its newest venture, Hawker Hall, just days away from opening, we go behind the scenes to see how Melbourne’s most popular restaurants stay on top of the game.

It’s a Friday night at Chin Chin, the Thai no-bookings restaurant in Melbourne’s Flinders Lane. A queue winds its way from the heavy green door down the footpath outside. It’s 7pm and the restaurant is full. Greeters politely take phone numbers and estimate for anxious diners how long it will be before a table becomes available. It should be crunch time, but something is different. The 120 seat venue’s relatively small kitchen is humming. Wait staff smile. Orders fly out.

Almost since the moment it opened five years ago, Chin Chin has been one of Melbourne’s busiest restaurants. Brash, loud and fun, it's slick without being expensive and has built a huge following among a population not phased by wait times of up to four hours. More impressively, the hype around the restaurant has not faded. Chin Chin is always buzzing, drawing people for the experience as much as the food. How do they do it?

The no bookings policy helps, making demand more constant and even. There’s good systems and workplace culture, and of course there’s Chris Lucas himself. But there’s something else that sets this restaurant apart from most other mid-sized eateries in Melbourne: a huge production kitchen. But you won’t find it in Chin Chin — it’s 20 kilometres away, in Moorabbin. There, in an industrial estate in the city’s south, sits a facility known as Factory One. It operates non stop, 24 hours a day.

01 “It’s not unique, but it is unusual,” says hospitality consultant Tony Eldred, of the Lucas Group model. While common in the fast food industry, Eldred says restaurateurs from higher market levels have recently become interested, too. “Margins are declining so operators with a number of restaurants are looking for ways to reduce their costs. This is one way of doing it.”

Staffed by 45 rotating chefs and 15 kitchen hands, admin staff and storemen, Factory One is the pulsating production heart of the Lucas Group, the four-restaurant (and counting) empire that includes Italian eatery Baby, Korean and Japanese barbeque joint Kong and Hawker Hall. Beyond the world of catering and fast food, there’s nothing quite like it in Australia’s restaurant scene. 01

In an average week, Factory One will process, make or dispatch 12,000 litres of stock, two tonnes of slow braised meats, 400 litres of milk, 400 kilograms of mozzarella, two tonnes of washed vegetables, 800 kilograms of flour and 15,000 litres of beer, wine and spirits. If this amount of food sounds outsized — it is. To put the numbers in context, Chin Chin, Baby and Kong alone feed the equivalent of a small regional city the size of Bairnsdale or Horsham (12,000 to 15,000 people), every single week. 02

02 The economy of scale and streamlined processes of Factory One allow each restaurant to run kitchens that are markedly smaller than most in similar size venues. This frees up valuable floor space for tables, maximising space for paying guests.

“It’s not a mom and pop operation,” quips one of the staff, dryly.

In an average week,
Factory one will process

12,OOO L
of stock
2 tonnes
of slow braised meats
4OO kg
of mozzarella
2 tonnes
of washed vegetables
15,OOO L
of beer

As well as doing all the prep for the existing three Lucas Group restaurants, Factory One is also the group’s central warehouse and larder, while another nearby building houses its astonishing booze collection. It’s a production and logistics hub that would be the envy of many, and a day in the life of Chin Chin starts here.

The cycle begins at midnight, when head chefs from each of the group’s restaurants email their next day’s orders to Moorabbin’s executive chef of production, David Finlayson. Once Finlayson has checked all orders, the machinery of the organisation grinds to life.

6:00am Friday
Factory One
Food Prep

Broadsheet arrives at 6am on a Friday, the Group's busiest day of the week. At that time of the morning, more than a dozen chefs and kitchen hands are already at work. In one corner, head pastry chef Vince Micalizzi extrudes fresh tagliatelle. In another, Baby’s head production chef Daniele Colombo throws the final touch of seasoning into several trays of wild mushrooms destined to become pizza toppings.

At a stainless steel table, four ‘pickers’ are working their way through several bowls of freshly washed coriander, which arrived (even) earlier today, from a farm in Werribee South (Lucas’ chefs prefer this sandy soil-grown coriander because it bruises less-easily than the hydroponic variety). The herbs will be bagged, weighed and tagged before storage, so chefs can keep track of them. 03

03 According to Lucas, his group is the largest restaurant consumer of coriander in Victoria and, at 7000 bunches-a-week, is likely one of the biggest users of Asian herbs (coriander, Thai basil and Vietnamese mint) in Australia, full-stop.

Behind the herb pickers is Kaneshka Qasim. Cleaver in one hand, whole braised duck in the other, Afghani-born Qasim is methodically chopping and deboning a rack of cooked birds, one by one. By the end of the day the kitchen hand, who started as a dishwasher in 2011, will have cooked, cut and deboned 50 ducks, destined for the kitchen at Chin Chin tonight. Factory One takes care of anything that requires lengthy cooking, such as slow braises and the popular pork hocks, and produces stocks and curry pastes for the restaurants.

7:42am Friday
Factory One

By the time delivery driver Sammy Sharma sets off for Baby, it’s 7.42am. The Lucas Group owns four three-tonne refrigerated trucks. Bringing the delivery system in house has helped reduce the disruption caused by external deliveries, and means schedules can run tighter. It takes Sharma a little less than 50 minutes to drive the 21 kilometres to Baby. “Pretty standard”, he says. Each restaurant has a dedicated truck, and the Lucas Group’s drivers average between 80 and 100 kilometres every day.

By the time Sharma arrives at Baby, breakfast is winding down. Before racing off to drop some boxes of liquor at Kong, Baby’s executive chef, a tall Brit named Jonathan Alston, checks Sharma’s delivery.

“I’ve got 22 staff here in my crew and we operate breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week,” Alston says. “My role is to support and train the team, develop senior chefs that go on to our new venues, but most importantly, [look after] the food here at Baby.”

Among the four chefs and five floor staff on shift this morning is 16-year-old Mackenzie Wust. The teenager left high school six weeks ago and found work here, which this morning involves learning one new skill (making gnocchi) and one familiar one (cleaning squid, which he’s had to do every day he’s been here). “Obviously it’s not considered a good idea to leave school, particularly at my age,” he says, hands deep in a bowl of cephalopods, “but I think this is a better path for me.”

While much of the prep for the group’s restaurants is done at Factory One, there are limits to how much can be done off site without sacrificing quality. Preparing seafood is, obviously, best done in the same venue it’s served in.

9:30am Friday
Chin Chin
Restaurant Visit

By 9.30am Chris Lucas has arrived with Holly, his 24-year-old daughter and the group’s brand manager, and general manager John Kanis. Lucas visits his restaurants at least once a day to see how everything is bearing up under the strain of daily service. Issues crop up all the time. Yesterday, Kanis and Lucas were lunching at Chin Chin, trying to impress a business guest, when Kanis noticed some missing service cutlery. “I’m not happy. It’s lazy,” he says. With a background in top LA restaurants, Kanis is the group’s front-of-house specialist and has a particular eye for detail. Even small things aren’t allowed to slip, and missing cutlery is a particular bugbear. Whether by accident (losing cutlery in the bin) or by design (in patrons’ pockets) the Lucas Group has to replace about 30 forks and spoons each week at Chin Chin alone. In total, it costs them as much as $45,000 each year.

Satisfied everything is in order at Baby, Lucas, Kanis and Holly stroll the two short blocks down Church Street to Kong. It’s part of a loose daily routine for Lucas that is juggled around commitments with architects, estate agents and other business contacts. Few conversations with Lucas aren’t interrupted by his mobile phone.

Opened in mid 2014, Kong has well and truly settled into a groove, but there’s always a kink that can be ironed out. Today Lucas is not happy about a service area filled with cleaning products that is visible to patrons as they walk to the bathrooms. “Can you make a note to get that fixed?” he asks Dan Briggs, Kong’s head chef. They prop at the bar to review a few changes to the 40-dish Kong menu. 04 A tofu sandwich is back on the agenda despite reservations about its complexity. “I’d like it to stay,” chips in group executive chef Benjamin Cooper. Lucas agrees, and it stays on the menu.

04 Most chefs would recoil from a 50-to-60 dish menu, preferring to stick with something tight that takes pressure off the kitchen and reduces the chance of wastage. Not so here. Part of the pressure (and economic risk) is absorbed by the group's ability to prep food in large quantities at Moorabbin, but ultimately, the policy is driven by Lucas' business sense. If his guests want more choice, that's what he'll deliver.
1:30pm Friday
Head Office
Finance Meeting

By 1.30pm, the three restaurants are pulsing with lunch diners, Factory One is humming with dinner preparations and Lucas and his executive staff are deep in their daily finance meeting. If Moorabbin is the operation’s pulsating heart, then this office, down a cobbled stone lane around the corner from Chin Chin, is its hard-nosed, strategic head. At the meeting table are Lucas, Kanis, Cooper, chief financial officer Emile Quinn, general manager Andrew Ray and beverage and procurement manager, Fab Nicolao. Every day, the men meet here to compare yesterday’s takings against the same time last week, last month and last year. The numbers thrown around in this room can be big — the group recently invested $200,000 in a new point of sale system — but they also focus on details such as the pricing error last night that saw a bottle of Bordeaux sell for $200 instead of $400. 05

05 Expensive bottles like this are rare on the group’s wine list, which they say could help explain the error.
Lucas and his executive staff deep in their daily finance meeting.

Although they keep details of their annual turnover close to their chest, CFO Emile Quinn later writes in an email that they are one of the fastest growing restaurant groups in Australia, with sales and growth targets above industry averages. “We have plans in the next five years to become one of the largest restaurant groups in the country,” he tells us, “with a diverse portfolio of brands which will have both national and international expansion.” Indeed, Lucas has already secured a venue in Sydney and is scouting locations in Brisbane for a possible Chin Chin restaurant. Hawker Hall is about to open on Chapel Street, Windsor, and he hopes to open in New York, too. Lucas is nothing if not ambitious.

5:00pm Friday
Chin Chin
Staff Meeting

By 5pm, a new shift has started at Moorabbin and delivery drivers have returned with their empty trucks. At Chin Chin, a dozen floor staff stand near the kitchen around sommelier (“wine chick”) Ella Wositzky. Wine glasses in hands, they sip and listen to her explain the fruit characteristics of a Mountadam pinot gris (“lots of limes, crunchy apple”), which she encourages them to push tonight.

06 Doing 550 on a warm, balmy evening in Melbourne is unlikely. Outdoor courtyards and beer gardens are the venues that will be full on a night like this.

Floor manager Kosta Taktikos takes over and tells the group that on the same night last year, the restaurant did 521 covers. “This year we’re going to 550. Have a great night, guys.” There’s laughter.06

“Meet it or beat it” is a Lucas Group mantra that has become part of the floor staff DNA. Indeed, Lucas believes the energy of his staff rubs off on customers (known as ‘guests’ according to official Lucas Group training protocols). “Energy plays on energy,” he says later. “The place is intense. If you’re slacking, there’s nowhere to hide. That rubs off on our guests. The energy flows through to them, I think.”

Energy needs to be up in the relatively small confines of the kitchen, too. While the work done at Factory One allows Chin Chin to keep so many customers happy with such a small kitchen, the actual business of cooking and constructing the dish still has to happen here. As the night heats up and chef Dave Rogers begins barking orders, executive chef Benjamin Cooper steals a moment to explain his personal approach. “This is my life,” he says. “If you get a little quiet period as the tables are changing, I’ll have the guys doing star-jumps or bouncing on the spot. Anything to keep the brain connected and active.”

8:00pm Friday
Chin Chin
Full Service

Over the course of an evening at Chin Chin there are few opportunities for pause. Door greeters Sophie Adams and Bardie Barclay-Sutton meet the flood of hungry, anxious guests head on, entering contact details into a computer, checking on tables, answering phone calls and estimating wait-times. At 7pm this is anywhere from 1.5 to two hours. Over the course of the night, tables will turn over multiple times until the last party is seated at 11.30pm. Some guests wander off to find a city bar but many end up in Go Go, Chin Chin’s dedicated watering hole downstairs. It’s possible to eat here too, but most patrons are happy to share a drink (or several) while they wait for a table upstairs. 07

07 The separate in-house bar is handy for the spillover and accounts for a significant share of the restaurant’s profits. As most people in hospitality will attest, alcohol sales are where the real money is. Needless to say, in terms of a business model, it’s impressive, but it ties in with another subject close to Lucas’ heart: young people binge drinking. Lucas has three young adult children, which adds a personal motivation to run affordable, food-focused venues for young people. He wants his restaurants to serve as an antidote to mindless binge drinking culture.

When the kitchen does finally start to wind down after last orders have been taken and dispatched, it’s almost midnight. Staff finally get to eat their own dinners — a vegetarian stir fry for some and whatever ‘wastage’ orders (dishes ordered by mistake) are floating around (a few ducks, a soft shell crab). Wine chick Ella Wositzky is happy. Staff have sold five bottles of that $46 pinot gris.

12:37am Saturday
Chin Chin
Close up shop

Meanwhile, floor staff engage in more light-hearted banter as they sense the night coming to a close. Past midnight there’s still the cutlery to be polished and the clean crockery to be dried (a splash of vinegar is a final measure to remove any grease). And then, at 12.37, after the restaurant’s final guests leave, the front door is shut and locked. “Give us light,” says one of the waitresses, audibly relieved when the house lights are flicked on. Soon it’s time for the six remaining wait-staff to clock-off and go home.

1:30am Saturday
Factory One
It starts again

At 1.30am, staff at Factory One are waiting on the next day’s orders while ensuring that Baby, the only Lucas Group restaurant that serves breakfast, will start Saturday fully stocked. At Chin Chin, three barstaff are prepping for tomorrow while several kitchenhands soap down the stainless steel surfaces. Cleaner Martin Vasanthn has started on the bathrooms and will work here until about 6am. After that he’ll go home, sleep and spend the afternoon cleaning private houses.

Tonight, the restaurant managed 510 covers - short of the result from this time last year, but still above average. 08 By now, chefs from all three restaurants have emailed their orders to David Finlayson at Factory One in Moorabbin. As a day at the Lucas Group draws to a close, another has already begun.

08 500 is about normal for Friday nights, although on ‘big event nights’ in Melbourne, Chin Chin has been known to do up to 1000 covers.