A Portrait of Smith & Daughters

A Portrait of Smith & Daughters

Smith & Daughters can’t run lunches. It’s not that they don’t want to. “We're so busy, we can't physically store enough food in the building,” explains head chef and co-owner, Shannon Martinez.

And they tried, too. For two days after opening in March, Martinez and partner, Mo Wyse, gave it a red-hot go. “They remade the menu three times,” sighs Wyse.

At night, all through the week, the kitchen pushed out 300 to 500 meals a night - sometimes on a Wednesday. “It screwed us completely,” adds Martinez.

That a new restaurant on Brunswick Street should be busy is not unusual. The local press regularly generates heavy-breathing over recently-opened venues. But Smith & Daughters isn’t exactly another Korexican tapas joint with a slick fit-out. In Smith & Daughters, everything is vegan.

And we mean everything: the tuna and green pea croquetas with béchamel, the paella with saffron stock, even the char-grilled peppers stuffed with cream cheese and minced chorizo - not a flank steak or cheese-cube in sight.

The pair settled on an all-vegan menu after trying out a pop-up at the almost stupidly-popular People’s Market. Martinez earned her veggie chops at the defunct-but-beloved band-hole, The East Brunswick Club. “There was huge demand, we kept getting asked over and over for vegan meals,” she recalls. “It just became a pain in the arse to keep coming up with ideas that were off-menu. We decided to put on a small menu just to see how it went and it went crazy.”

Martinez refined the menu at The Gasometer, where the demand was even more pronounced. “At The Gasometer it went huge, maybe because it was a band venue and the clientele was younger,” she says. “The vegan menu started taking off more than the meat menu started taking off, so that was a massive sign.”

There was obviously a serious gap in the market. Together with Wyse, Martinez came up with a concept for an eatery concentrating on Spanish-style cuisine, a rock ’n roll concept and a fully meat-free offering. If there was a core vegan demographic, it clearly didn’t have anything that combined the choice of ethical cuisine with the buzz of an on-trend new restaurant. “Vegans will always know, they’ll find us wherever we are,” laughs Martinez. “They’ll go to the farthest ends of the Earth if there's a vegan restaurant opening up. Thank you vegans!”

But capturing the vegan market isn’t exactly license to print money. In a 2010 Newspoll, only one percent of respondents claimed to be vegan (and some of them were lying). So Wyse and Martinez were determined to get the rest of us barbarians in with them. It was essential that Smith & Daughters didn’t (literally) push its politics down diner’s throats. “It gets old real fucking quick,” says Martinez. “You've already made the choice. To eat ethically or whatever, you don't need to be hounded the whole time you're at a restaurant.”

None of the restaurant’s branding mentions vegetarianism, nor does its menu point out that dishes aren’t made of meat. Instead, they use words like ‘tuna,’ ‘chorizo’ and ‘omelette’. Wyse believes you can bring your steak-happy dad into Smith & Daughters and he won’t notice he’s eaten green by subterfuge. “It’s not an exclusive club, veganism,” says Wyse. “You don't have to believe a certain thing or be doing it for your health or ethics or anything: it's food and it's good food. Shannon's not vegan. The point is she's got a talent for making vegan food.”

The decision to brand not-meat dishes by their meat-friendly names was a practical one. “If you put that word tuna in front of something, they know what to expect,” explains Martinez. “It's just gonna give them a starting point as opposed to “vegetable, shredded protein, croquette.” That sounds fucking disgusting.”

However, if they were keeping the veganism on the down-low, Smith & Daughters wanted to get something else out in the open: this is a business run by women. The kitchen staff are mostly female, as are the bartenders - though many of the floorstaff are blokes. “It was a concerted effort to show that we are women who own a business in a not-so-female-dominated industry,” says Wyse. “There's no quota being filled but there was a conscious choice to hire both genders in all of our roles.”

For Martinez, the decision to promote a female-run business was partly a reaction to many of the testosterone-fuelled kitchens she’d worked in, where a grab-ass culture often still reigns supreme. “I left my apprenticeship in my third year because I was just over it – over that whole boy's club shit,” she says. “Frightening someone doesn't bring out the best in anybody. The whole kitchen feels the vibe, and it's shitty. Yet in kitchens, apparently, that's just what you have to deal with. In my kitchen, that will never ever happen. I don't raise my voice at anybody.”

The philosophy filters, in a subtle way, through the business’ branding. Smith & Daughters suggests a family-run provedore, but carefully inverts the traditional patrilineal business model. Most everything to do with the restaurant’s image is as calculated. Wyse’s background in environmental journalism, television production, marketing and events management, was made to work in favour of Smith & Daughters.

For instance, before the restaurant’s opening, the team prepared a preview feast, and calibrated their guest list to invite representatives from both key media outlets, and the local community. “It was sort of creating a buzz in the right communities of something different,” says Wyse. “We managed to get not just people from food media or The Age and The Herald-Sun, but people from all over. That was really the key: it wasn't just going to the foodies, or the typical people who get invited to things all the time.”

The project of creating a vibe clearly worked: most local - and some national - food and culture publications had articles lined up before the first plate hit the table. “Yeah, you can't come in quietly, I think. We got written up in all the majors before we opened our doors,” said Wyse. “We had photo shoots, we had interviews. It was intense because, with this being our first business, we had heaps of other things on.”

And consequently, things became a little too intense for lunch service. However, it has only been four months, and Wyse and Martinez already have big plans. A produce store is already in the works. “We have a huge business plan, I mean massive in terms of that whole world-domination concept,” says Wyse, identifying packaged products as an area of real opportunity. “They’re things you have in the US that you just don't have here. That was always sort of our idea was to do a bit of a grocery-type vibe.”

The partners are also considering new sites for future Smith & Daughters restaurants. “It was never one location. Ever,” says Wyse. “We get asked all the time to open up in other cities and countries and that is on the cards. For us, this is great and good and we love it to pieces, but it's just a jumping off point.”