When Andrew Harrison’s parents launched Lagoon Restaurant at Wollongong’s Stuart Park in the 1980s, fine dining was virtually non-existent in the seaside suburb.
“There was probably two decent restaurants in Wollongong,” Harrison explains. “The region has long had a vibrant migrant community, particularly the people who came from Italy, Greece and other parts of Europe, and they brought with them new flavours and food culture. But much of that culture was in their homes. It took a long time for that to translate into a restaurant scene.”
Harrison says when the opportunity arose for his parents to take over the former kiosk in the park they were determined to change the food culture.
“Instead of the humble kiosk serving tea and ice blocks to beachgoers, they saw an opportunity to put Wollongong on the map and launch a restaurant that was itself a tourist attraction. An entrepreneurial spirit and a great chef, the location and making the restaurant a warm, vibrant and fun place to be were what made Lagoon a success from day one,” Harrison says.
Despite their drive and ambition, Harrison says his parents had little experience in the restaurant game. The early days of the business were a challenge. Today Lagoon is a Wollongong institution. It’s the place where the city’s families come to celebrate.
What were the challenges you faced in initially bringing your business to market?
“From christenings to graduations, engagements, weddings, anniversaries – it’s where memories are created. People have so many special moments connected to the Lagoon. We’ve kept true to our passion for seafood, so many of our dishes are connected to people’s memories. We have several dishes that have been on the menu since the 80s and it’s important to our local diners that we do retain some of that history; people come in and order, for example, the main course served at their wedding 20 years ago.”
Harrison believes exceptional service and quality food are key to Lagoon’s success.
“We need to be on our A-game all the time and that ensures our reputation. We’ve also carved out a niche in functions. From a 400-guest wedding to a corporate dinner, we can pretty much deliver any occasion you want, and our kitchen expertise means we can serve exceptional food. It’s not a choice between chicken or beef at our functions.”
To keep up with the competition, Lagoon has also broadened its offering opening up the more casual Deck Bar to cater to people who want to have breakfast by the beach or lunch in the park.
“We took a risk but on a sunny Sunday morning, the packed deck speaks for itself,” says Harrison.
Harrison has also expanded the family’s holdings to incorporate a separate company – ZT Wholesale.
“I’m integrating our own supply chain, as well as serving cafes and restaurants in the region. This helps us source great products as well as reducing our costs. ZT is in a rapid growth phase and I’m excited about its potential.”
Since the restaurant launched over three decades ago, the family business has weathered a lot of changes in the hospitality sector. Harrison tells KBB competition for the region’s fine-diners is fierce.
“There are more and more cafes and restaurants opening each month. Not all of them survive. Rather than trying to keep up with fads, we know what we do well and stay true to that. A key advantage is obviously our location, but we’ve developed an upmarket kitchen that can serve quality food consistently to large numbers of people. No one else can do that.”
As restaurants are further challenged by economic conditions and the rise of Uber Eats Lagoon’s success sees it stand out from the crowd. Yet Harrison says they need to stay vigilant to stay ahead of the curve.
“The biggest challenge is probably not UberEats but what’s driving that: busy lives and Netflix! People commute long hours for work and sometimes they just want to stay home and watch their favourite show. We host parties around big events, like the Melbourne Cup, and so we’re top of the list of choices when people want to go out.
“The market research tells us that sales for the food and beverage services industry in Wollongong has grown by 21 per cent to more than $660 million in the past five years. The population is growing, people’s tastes are changing and we’re confident that we’ll always have a place in the mix of dining choices in the region.”
The restauranteur recently opened a new venture, Bourke St Burgers, to cater to the growing market.
“We saw an opportunity in a great beachside location and we’ve been able to draw on our culinary and service expertise from Lagoon to deliver a place that I’m really proud of. We wanted a place that was youthful and vibrant but one that also made families feel welcome. It’s early days but we’re travelling well,” he says.
Investing in the latest tech has also allowed Lagoon to improve its service offering and develop new business opportunities.
“We’ve invested in systems in our operations, HR and finance to be able to work efficiently. I can see how event bookings are tracking, compare them to other years and also predict demand for our big events. This helps with staffing and making sure we have enough produce on hand to serve our guests as well as reducing waste.
We’ve also added online gift cards to our website. We worked with a developer to integrate some custom elements into proprietary software to do that. Not many restaurants do that and it drives huge sales at peak times of the year.”
Harrison says in recent years social media has played a large role in the success of the business.
“Our digital footprint is a massive part of our marketing and sales. We rebuilt the website and diverted investment in traditional media advertising to focus on digital marketing. We can better understand our audiences, target them with compelling offers and provide a community where people can share their experiences. And we can do it for a fraction of the cost.
“Our approach to the website and social media is about creating good content. We know that people who are looking for a wedding venue or a place to eat go first to Google and Instagram. Our content helps them find us and taps into their desire to have good food and good times. Our web traffic is strong, our social pages are growing constantly and we get great engagement. On top of driving awareness, we have automated sales funnels, particularly around weddings, that convert that interest into action. It’s simple, effective and importantly, I can see the ROI on marketing.”
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