As the brain behind some of the most popular and distinctive restaurants in Melbourne, Chris Lucas knows a thing or two about marketing a venue. Lucas’ restaurants – Chin Chin on Flinders Lane and Baby pizzeria in Richmond – are known almost as much for their party atmosphere and cheeky online presence as their food. But as Lucas explains, the recipe for his success isn’t that complicated, but a matter of deciding on the type of customers they want to attract, then working backwards.

“We don’t do any in-depth study, it’s more anecdotal,” says Lucas of the planning process behind a new venue, “but we do try to keep in mind the demographic we’re targeting – that’s just sort of logical.” Once a direction has been decided on, the real work begins – staffing, menus, fit-out, graphic design – but Lucas believes that promoting a venue can begin long before the doors open for trading, even before settling on a name.

“Some people spend a year trying to come up with a name,” he says. “It’s not that important. Once it’s out in the marketplace, people get comfortable with it.” Both Chin Chin and Baby use social media extensively, daily updates on specials as well as regular video content including tongue-in-cheek ‘Chef Wars’ between cooks from the two restaurants. As much as he uses it to his advantage, Lucas is quick to point out that without a good product, all the Facebook updates in the world won’t help your brand. “I don’t think social media is this magic wand that everyone keeps talking about,” he says. “It’s just like any form of advertising. You’ve got to know what you’re doing and the message behind it has to be strong.”

Lucas’ restaurant family is about to welcome a new member – the Korean BBQ joint Kong, which is set to open in April. The word of Kong’s imminent arrival spread like wildfire months ago, building anticipation that is more akin to a new album release from a hot indie band than a place to go out for dinner. As well as putting the word out through various media outlets and his social media channels, Lucas has been using his existing venues to build the hype for Kong. “We’ve been running a bunch of really cool short films on the movie wall outside Chin Chin based on K-pop and the coming of Kong,” he says, “so people who have been coming in get a double whammy.” Lucas is not concerned that mixing messages across venues will dilute the identity of any of them, citing the sophistication of his customers and the value in doing something memorable, rather than sending out a “boring email”. He believes in highlighting the fact that each restaurant is part of a bigger family, rather than an entity to build from the ground up. “Otherwise,” he points out, “they’re just another restaurant.”

Another clever piece of marketing is the Chin Chin: The Book, released late last year. As well as the obvious attraction of chef Benjamin Cooper’s Thai recipes, the 250-page tome serves as a physical manifestation of the Chin Chin brand, in all its irreverent, colourful glory. Lucas chose the financially risky option of self-publishing the cookbook, explaining, “We didn’t want to be constrained by what some publisher wanted, who’s purely motivated by sales.”

Taking a risk and trying something different is central to Lucas’ ethos, which, unsurprisingly, takes some inspiration from the late founder of Apple, Steve Jobs. “That single-minded determination to make sure that whatever they did was the best and the most innovative,” says Lucas, “Whether it’s a computer or a restaurant, those philosophies cross over.”

As well as laying the groundwork for Kong and managing his existing empire, Lucas has been acting as an industry mentor as part of The Keys. The project, launched late last year, was put together by Broadsheet and Bank of Melbourne to help one of Melbourne’s favourite cafes take the next step and open a brand new venue. Along with fellow industry leaders Kate Bartholomew (Coda, Tonka), Nathan Toleman (Two Birds One Stone, Top Paddock) and Bank of Melbourne’s local business manager, Vanessa Hastie, Lucas has been working with the successful recipient of The Keys, Andrew Kelly, as he sets up an innovative new filter coffee venue in the CBD. “He had some pretty stiff competition,” says Lucas, “but there were a few things that stood out about Andrew. He has a good track record behind him with Auction Rooms and he has a unique angle for his new venue.”

In the next installment of The Keys video series ‘Building Your Brand’, Lucas passes on some advice on how Kelly can capitalise on the good reputation he’s built up through his existing Auction Rooms venue, and some effective ways of building a following for his new venue even before it opens. “The market is so congested, especially at the cafe level, it’s important to differentiate yourself.” says Lucas. “The challenge is going to be to convince the marketplace that filter coffee is a different experience.”

It’s a huge task to launch a new business, particularly on the back of running several other ones – an experience both Lucas and Kelly are going through at the moment. But as Lucas points out, if the idea is strong and well executed, Melbourne diners – and coffee drinkers – are more than up for a culinary challenge. “We have a very significant and very sophisticated market here, because of the depth of competition,” says Lucas. “Kelly’s new cafe offering for Melbourne’s CBD will fit right in.”

The Keys is brought to you by Broadsheet and Bank of Melbourne.
bankofmelbourne.com.au/thekeys