Bluebonnet Barbecue has gone through more incarnations than most restaurants – and not always on purpose. Chris Terlikar’s Texas-style enterprise started its life as a pop-up before putting down roots in Collingwood five years ago. The Melbourne native had just started out in his first permanent location as an owner-chef when he experienced every restaurateur’s worst nightmare – the building including Terlikar’s apartment above the restaurant caught fire from one of the meat smokers.
“Insurance didn’t pay any loss of trade because we were new and didn’t have our financials all together, which was a big learning curve,” says Terlikar, who can (kind of) laugh about it now. “It was pretty devastating.”
Luckily, Bluebonnet was about to do a pop-up at The Curtin Hotel, which provided a temporary home base after the fire. But because Bluebonnet could only make money from food while guesting at The Curtin, and not from its own massive whiskey and cocktail list, it wasn’t as profitable as being in the former space. “We didn’t really have the same amount of cash coming through, which was really tough,” says Terlikar. “After that I put myself into quite a bit of debt.”
Undeterred, he reopened the business with a short-term lease at The North Fitzroy Star, a 140-year-old pub, only to see that location overtaken by apartment development.
Fast-forward to today and Bluebonnet is now safely ensconced in an expansive brick-lined location [on East Brunswick’s bustling Lygon Street. And of course Terlikar and his team have nailed down all the requisite financial and insurance elements this time around, and even signed a 20-year lease.
It’s a hard-fought milestone in a culinary career that dates all the way back to when Terlikar was a few months shy of his 15th birthday. He had just landed his first job, working after school as a kitchen hand in Williamstown and taking care of the restaurant’s larder on the weekends. By the time he was 18, he got “really serious” about the food business, leaving Australia for a decade to work across restaurants in New York, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.
It was while overseas that he first experienced – and fell in love with – Texas barbeque, that flavour-saturated meat-smoking tradition that has recently permeated many corners of the world. “As soon as I tasted it, [I knew] it was what I wanted to do,” he says. Soon he was interning at barbeque joints in Austin, and he still returns to Texas every year for research and to clock the continuing innovations, such as how Austin’s LeRoy and Lewis (a smoked-meat trailer) dabbles with different cuts of meat in the name of “new school barbeque”.
Terlikar’s fondness for Texan cuisine extends all the way to Bluebonnet’s very name, borrowed from the Texas state flower. And luckily, barbeque was just catching on in Australia when he opened up shop, even if the local scene lagged in some other regards.
“In the beginning it was hard to even buy a smoker in Australia. Now you can get one from hardware shops,” he says. “[But] trying to sell it to people, we never had any problem. As soon as we opened in Collingwood we had a line out the door.”
Terlikar knows that with any business, no matter how successful, there needs to be trial and error. “We’re still always changing things. You’re always trying to make things better.” And when you’re your own boss, that’s more important than ever. While Terlikar loves being in charge – “You can have your freedom … not having to okay everything with someone else” – he admits you need to be persistent to run your own business.
And after his nasty brush with financial oversight, Terlikar says that using software such as MYOB, not just for accounting but for all of his business needs, helped him find his feet. “You can manage all aspects of the business, including payroll,” he says, noting that Bluebonnet currently employees 20 workers (including a dozen full-time). “It’s a cloud-based program, so you can easily access it from home or work. You can integrate it with other business software as well.”
That will come in handy as Bluebonnet continues to branch out with pop-ups – both interstate in Sydney and Canberra and at events like Boogie Fest and the Zoo Twilights series – and follow a five-year plan that includes opening two more permanent locations. “I’d love to open something in Sydney or expand to regional Victoria. I’ve always had the goal to have three restaurants by the time I’m 40, which isn’t that far away anymore,” Terlikar says with a laugh.
For now, at least, he’s got that 20-year lease on Lygon Street, ensuring the future of Bluebonnet for at least a generation. After all that time spent moving around and building up a trusted local brand, it was a relief to finally have some security. “A 20-year lease is more calming than daunting,” he says. “This is the permanent one.”
This article is produced in partnership with MYOB and The Design Files.
See more of the We, The Brave series here.