The Sydney restaurant scene is a blood sport. A restaurant opening and closing its doors within a couple of months barely raises an eyebrow.
It’s remarkable then to stumble across an entrepreneur who has not only survived, but expanded his restaurant business into some of Sydney’s biggest name locations – Balmain, Darling Harbour, Top Ryde, Sydney CBD and soon to be Potts Point.
A tenacious, almost stubborn willingness to succeed, has got Zahi Azzi to where he is today.
Migrating to Australia from Lebanon as a 15 year old, Azzi grew up watching his father work in hotels throughout the Middle East. This early experience planted the seed for a career in the hospitality industry.
After studying hospitality management at TAFE, Azzi set his sights on owning his own restaurant. At just 25 years of age, Azzi opened his first Kazbah restaurant in Balmain. “It was tough, but I really wanted to own my own restaurant, and I just kept working away at it,” Azzi says.
“If you have the passion for it, then I believe you have to do it. So for example, in the Balmain location there were two restaurants there before us that failed, and everyone said ‘No don’t do it it’s not going to work’. But it was something I really wanted to do, and I believed it could work, so I decided to do it,” Azzi says.
In the beginning, the main challenge was realising that nothing is ever as easy as it sounds. It’s not a matter of just saying ‘Oh we’ll cook something, and we’ll sell it’, Azzi says. Contrary to what celebrity cooking shows and Masterchef lead some to believe, the restaurant industry can be decidedly unglamorous.
Now with five locations throughout Sydney, Azzi says getting to where is today has meant a lot of personal sacrifice. “I suppose it has meant missing out on a lot of things. In the beginning I didn’t have anyone to fill in, or help me – and I wasn’t big enough to have 2 or 3 chefs.”
“The main things happen on Friday and Saturday nights, you know dinner parties and weddings and all these things – so [my wife and I] missed out on all of that, and then when we opened the second and third restaurants I realised, ‘Ok I have to take a step back and really manage these restaurants’ – I can’t be in all restaurants on a Saturday night. So it’s been about training my staff to be responsible,” Azzi says.
Now with a management infrastructure numbering one hundred staff, as well as an offsite office, the business has changed somewhat since those early days. However, Azzi says staying competitive isn’t easy.
“We’re constantly reviewing how to cut costs. We’re running a tight business, it is a balance, and we work at the moment on a 5% profit margin – so the margins are strict, and we really have to follow those strict guidelines in order to be successful,” Azzi says.
At the beginning of his business journey, like many, it was simply about wanting to be the best – wanting to have the best restaurant in Sydney, to be reviewed, and to an extent – the glitz and glamour of the industry.
It’s still about being the best, but Azzi says his mindset has evolved. “At the end of the day, if you’re not making a profit, you can’t sustain running the restaurant. And that’s where I think a lot of restaurants fall down. I’ve had chefs who haven’t cared about how much things cost – but if you can’t get the right price for it, what’s the point? I love cooking myself, and I’m very passionate about it, but if we can’t make a profit – within six months I would be closed,” Azzi says.
Part of his business savviness lies in keeping a close watch on ordering. “We’re very careful with what we order, what we’re ordering it for, and how we use it. That’s not a sacrifice on quality; it’s about being smarter with what you do. So we look at the ingredients in that way,” Azzi says. “So there’s a balance you have to find there. You have to find the right ingredients for the right price.”
These days, with a new Kazbah restaurant soon to open in Potts Point – looking back on all he’s achieved – Azzi is proud, but affirms it’s been a tough slog.
“If you have the passion and you really want to work hard, then you’ll be successful. But if you just want to open a café and come in for a few hours each day and think you’re going to have heaps of money – well, it’s not going to happen. There is a lot of work involved.”