Mister Big

Mister Big

Shane Delia is the picture of success. But with Biggie Smalls, the chef’s foray into quick service restaurants provided an unexpected challenge.

Shane Delia’s just come back from lunch with the Prime Minister. For the first time in ten years, he’s on holiday - in Malta, the country his father left at age 17 - where he’s kicking back with his wife and kids, watching the World Cup, drinking beers on the beach… and having the odd get-together with reigning heads of state.

It’s a situation Delia finds somewhat surreal, difficult to square with the humble beginnings he still uses as an anchor. “I'm just a fat wog from the suburbs who left school when he was 16,” he says. “You know, I never thought that I'd be sitting at the table with a prime minister having lunch, talking about business and politics and and opportunities and what I can contribute - I mean, that’s, that's stupid shit.”

It’s true that Delia left Keilor Downs Secondary College at 16, where he struggled with learning difficulties and attention deficit disorder. And, he followed the same path as countless other apprentices before him, moving steadily through the ranks until heading up his own kitchen. But there’s far more to Shane Delia than that Boy from the ‘Burbs. Beneath the affable exterior there’s a canny businessman, an entrepreneur with sizeable ambition, someone ever on the lookout for that next opportunity, and someone with the energy with which to take it.

Ten years ago, Delia opened Maha, with the help of fellow celebrity chef George Calombaris. Their split in 2013 wasn’t exactly amicable, but Delia emerged from it as the sole proprietor of his restaurant, which is all the better for it. In that same year, he began hosting Spice Journey, a popular travel program on SBS, and later took on a hosting role for Channel 9’s Postcards. Meanwhile, he worked as an ambassador for both the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne City Football Club, and picked up a high-profile sponsorship from Mercedes-Benz. On the side, he’s partnered with catering giant Peter Rowland to cook for events such as the Australian Grand Prix. In little over a decade, Delia has transformed from an owner-operator to the director of a group with over 100 employees and diverse business interests. “I’m not the chef anymore,” he explains. “I've got a very talented group of chefs and a great head chef at Maha, Daniel Giraldo.

It’s partly out of responsibility to that steadily growing staff that Delia feels a compulsion to continue growing the business. In late 2014, the chef ventured into territory occupied by an increasing number of brand-name chefs such as Neil Perry, Aaron Turner, Shannon Bennett and the aforementioned Calombaris: a quick service restaurant, Biggie Smalls. “We've got some talented people and you know, they, they've got a wide berth of skillsets that we need to encourage,” he explains. “We've got great staff retention. We've got a great culture within our restaurants and people want to stick around. But I'm not stupid either. I know there can be the best people, the most loyal people, but if you're not feeding their needs, eventually we're going to lose them. I’d rather see them grow within our group than grow somewhere else.”

The idea behind Biggie Smalls is simple, but distinctly Delia. Named after a nom de plume of the dearly departed rapper, the Notorious B.I.G., Biggie’s serves upscale kebabs using great-quality ingredients, composed with the chef’s signature eclecticism that draws from American, European, Middle Eastern and Australian cuisine, but isn’t limited by any of the strict delineations between them. “I wanted to change people's perception of what kebabs are. Yes, I love a three in the morning Lambs Kebab. I love those traditional ones. I'm a big advocate for them. It doesn't mean that's all it has to be. Why can’t it be something different?” he asks. “I wanted a joint that I could come to and sit down with my mates, eat something that was cool and listen to the the music that I like and see people enjoying it.”

The restaurant was partly a result of Delia’s individual taste, but also evidence of an expensive process of branding and design. The in-store experience is expectedly slick, with great, graffito-style branding and golden-era hip-hop on the stereo. And, deploying Delia’s not-inconsiderable media savvy, the Collingwood store opened with a sophisticated publicity campaign that had all the local food news outlets talking. “You don't need to spend bucket loads of money, but you need to try. You need to try everything,” he says. “We opened Maha in 2008 with whatever money we had. With Biggie. I probably spent close to a similar amount opening a kebab shop. But has it been as successful?”

In its first year, the short answer was no. Even with Delia’s star power, a location on Melbourne’s hippest dining strip, and an ice-cool branding strategy, the response to Biggie Smalls didn’t pan out as expected. In the first few weeks, there were lines out the door. The problem was they weren’t coming back. “I think that’s our fault,” admits Delia. “I don't think that we had our product right, I don't think that we knew who we were yet. I spent a lot of money in developing the brand, but I didn’t spend enough time in developing the brand and what the brand really was in regards to food. You know, I put together a few kebabs I thought were tasty, and then bang. I probably had in my mindset, this is a model I can scale, let's open it.”

The decision to get too big, too quick, with a chain of Biggies opening in suburbs across the country, didn’t match reality on the ground. So Delia went back to basics. “In hindsight I should've had the focus on this as one shop. It's only ever going to be one shop. Let's focus on the food being un-bloody-believable, then put a PR campaign around that,” he says. “It took us a good two years to work out who we are, what we are, what we're really about, scrap the entire menu and start again. And I'm really happy with the menu now, I mean it's been a really good spot. It’s mega tasty now we can actually produce it consistently.”

Although Delia takes responsibility for the restaurant’s initial performance, he was also subject to events outside of his control. The launch of Biggie Smalls coincided with the launch of Uber Eats, and overnight, the entire industry changed. “The only way I can compare it is we were operating in an analog world and it’s suddenly digital,” he recalls. “It was extremely challenging. We launched the business with a model based on an existing structure: the only way you make money is through people coming into the restaurant. And then boom, Uber comes along and changes all that.”

Like many other restaurants, Biggie Smalls struggled to find a way to adapt to the financial demands imposed by the delivery services. “Say you're going to take ten grand a week in-store, and you're doing that,” Delia explains. “And then Uber comes in and suddenly you're doing six grand a week in-store and three grand a week on Uber. You're already losing a little bit of revenue, plus that three grand that you’re doing, you're now paying a commission on. It changes your business model completely.”

Still, far from being resistant to the so-called sharing economy, Delia collaborated closely with the delivery companies to find a way to make it work. He even trialled so-called ‘dark sites,’ Biggie Smalls stores without a shopfront that only serviced deliveries. But, the week before going on holidays, Delia shut them all down. “We had five Uber eats exclusive stores all over the state. We thought that this is a way that we can absorb the commission, a way that we can make this work,” say Delia. “But the reality was that we just couldn't, I mean there were too many hidden costs on our end, and we couldn't find a way to marry it up. So we had to close them.”

So, Delia has decided to make Biggie Smalls a big deal, he needs to think small. “I’m a boxer, not a kickboxer. And I feel like I’m in a different fight with QSRs,” he says. “I’m trying to take the same mentality, the same ethos from Maha and apply it to a quick service restaurant, and it’s just not compatible. I don’t want to be in a position where I have to compromise.”

From now on, Delia’s plans for Biggies aren’t world domination. Instead, he’s concentrating on operating a venue that, through exceptional quality, can stand the test of time. “What changed my mind was that I could maintain a standard that I’m proud of with two stores, maybe three in the next few years. I’m hoping I can actually have an environment where my staff are happy, and I’m not doing anything that’s gonna damage the brand. I don’t know if I could sustain that and hold onto my soul if it were 16, 20 stores,” he says. “I want, especially Smith Street, to be come an iconic store, like Danny’s Burgers. It’s been there for 50 fucking years. You go there with your Dad. I want people to come to Biggie Smalls with their kids.”

first published in foodservice news