Meet the Man Behind the Food Empire: Damian Griffiths

Meet the Man Behind the Food Empire: Damian Griffiths

We sat down with Damian Griffiths, the immigration lawyer-turned-entrepreneur who has changed Brisbane’s social scene.

By Hannah Doody | 7th July 2016

If you live in Brisbane, you’ve probably eaten at one of his venues. With Doughnut Time, Mister Fitz and Chester Street Bakery under his belt (among many others), Damian Griffiths is turning Brisbane into a foodie paradise – and now he’s taking on the world.

Damian, as a former immigration lawyer, what first attracted you to the hospitality scene?

Travel has always been a huge part of my attraction to hospitality. I use travel to get away from the everyday stresses of life and inspire the mind. Staying in hotels all over the world first led me to take that first big risk away from law and build Limes Hotel (Brisbane’s first hotel and rooftop bar at the time). I really wanted to create the kind of unique hotel experience for Brisbane that I would have in cities such as Paris and Barcelona.

Did you always have a vision for the restaurants and bars in this area of Fortitude Valley?

Alfred & Constance was a very clear vision because at the time it was a very quiet end of the Valley and I wanted something that everyone could enjoy. No one had gone as far to do something that brought a café, a restaurant, a beer garden, a tiki bar and a nightclub together as one. Each facet of the venue felt very “Queensland” in its offerings and to do it all within two heritage-listed Queenslander homes helped inform the rest of the design. Alfredo’s was inspired by the pizzerias I visited in New York and Kwan Brothers became the amalgamation of my favourite Japanese izakayas and street vendors of Southeast Asia.

When did you realise that you had developed a following in the food industry?

I think a lot of it comes down to knowing your audience and having an acute sense of what they want. We spend a lot of time engaging with our following and working on new products to spark their imagination.

opt_MisterFitz

Mister Fitz's icecream sandwich

How do you think social media and bloggers have impacted your success?

There’s no doubt that social media is where it’s at right now; no other platform allows you to connect so personally with your customers. We embrace opportunities to work with bloggers because it adds another dimension to our marketing and brings an outside perspective to what you do. While we appreciate the positive write-ups on our food and service, the feedback we get on what we can improve is incredibly valuable too.

Is there any truth to the rumours that you’re planning to sell Alfred & Constance, Alfredo’s, Kwan Brothers and Limes?

Actually, we have decided to keep the business and expand the group. I have a really loyal and long-serving team. Many of them were sad when I thought about selling so I decided I should change my management style, put in place a key team and create a proper support office for the business.

I think you will see me running these businesses for the next few years at least and hopefully then I can hand over the reins to someone else in my team. I still have so many new projects here in Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

How do you maintain a balance between all your venues?

I’m very hands-on in my approach to work. I like to work from the venues and be there to see what our customers are experiencing, what’s working well and what we can improve. I couldn’t have that kind of personal insight being stuck in an office. Alfred & Constance has been my “office” for years because I can get there early, hold meetings, then easily walk across to the kitchens in Alfredo’s or Kwan Brothers. Les Bubbles and Mister Fitz are both just a short walk or drive away from what will be my next hospitality precinct on Little Street, so I now divide my time between there and short trips to the Gold Coast, Sydney and Melbourne.

What are your stressors when it comes to juggling so many successful businesses?

It’s just a matter of finding the right balance with what I need to focus my energies on. I like to be involved in all aspects of the business (working with chefs, my marketing team, the operations team, etc.). We now have more than 400 employees working across all eight businesses (and we’re growing rapidly), and I think it’s still very important to be a hands-on boss who remains approachable and knows who his team are.

Being an owner in the hospitality industry and seeing firsthand the ups and downs in both restaurants and bars, what do you think about Brisbane’s booming food industry and how has it affected you?

The industry in Brisbane has come a long way in such a short space of time. It’s always great to be viewed as someone who has contributed to that growth, but I’m not the only one out there pushing to try and make Brisbane a world-class city for drinking and dining. It’s a difficult industry and sadly not everyone makes it beyond their first 12 months of operating. We don’t have the population of Sydney or Melbourne to work with, so it makes for a concentrated and very competitive space to work in.

Doughnut Time

Doughnut Time

Do you think the Brisbane food industry is cut-throat? And if so why?

“Cut-throat” isn’t the word I’d use but it’s certainly competitive. That’s not a bad thing; competition is healthy and it forces you to innovate or find creative ways to fully realise your concepts and products. You can have the best ideas in the world on paper, but it doesn’t count for anything unless you find ways to follow through and make them happen.

Do you travel often for inspiration? And if so, how do you think Brisbane compares to places like Sydney, Melbourne and other countries?

In some ways our bar, fine dining and casual dining culture has caught up with the likes of Sydney and Melbourne. There’s still a way to go before we lose the “little brother” perception, but as long as our industry continues to grow like it has over the last five years, we’ll be on track to make Brisbane a destination that people around the world will flock to.

We’ve seen the success of Doughnut Time spread across Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne and even at Coachella this year. What do you think makes everyone fall in love with Doughnut Time?

I don’t think anyone could have really predicted just how successful Doughnut Time would end up becoming! If there’s a reason why people fall in love with Doughnut Time, it’s because there’s a passionate and dedicated team working constantly to keep it the fun and exciting experience we always intended it to be. Doughnut Time is a fun brand. It’s about people. It’s a product made, glazed and filled by hand every day and our social presence is one our customers can interact and identify with.

What is your method for success?

A lot of it is largely intuition – knowing what you think your customer wants and finding ways to make those ideas a reality. There’s a lot I can attribute to past experience and being able to learn from mistakes as well as having the passion to wake up and seize every single day.

What does a meal with friends look like with Damian Griffiths?

A large table with plenty of dishes for sharing, wine, cocktails and conversation for hours. Usually with a group of people that don’t mind me occasionally ducking off for a quick call or taking 10 minutes to stay up-to-date on emails. There have been a few occasions where close friends have forcibly confiscated my phone for the night!

What's next for Damian Griffiths?

There’s a lot in the works for this year. We’re currently working on an exciting new bar and dining concept for the Gold Coast, continuing to develop our Little Street precinct and further expand Doughnut Time (of course), as well as bringing Mister Fitz and Chester Street to the southern states!

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Article by Hannah Doody

Hannah is a former journalist at Style Magazines. When she is not exploring new parts of the world, you will find her at music festivals, or on her eternal quest for the best breakfast in Brisbane.

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