After five years of wandering, Bluebonnet Barbecue finally has a permanent home in Brunswick East. But it’s been a long journey getting there.
Remember when barbecue was a thing? It was a couple of years before poké but a fair while after avocado. We hadn’t yet discovered matcha. Back in that smoky, sticky golden age, chefs across the country were abandoning kitchens for the great outdoors. Everyone was taking to 40 gallon drums with oxy-torches and buying whole sides of beef. Eventually, diners became sleepy and fat from all the white bread and pulled pork, and moved onto raw turmeric.
It’s all part of the natural lifecycle – a few brave innovators try something new, and everyone else falls in line. It becomes a brutal war of attrition - a process of natural selection. And, a couple of years later, only the strong survive.
Chris Terliker is a survivor. Few restaurateurs have taken as many knocks as this man. Back in 2015, right at the height of the barbecue craze, his first restaurant and passion project, Bluebonnet Barbecue, burnt down. Terliker was living above the Collingwood restaurant, and he’d just crawled into bed after stacking the smoker. He woke up an hour later to find the courtyard bathed in amber light.
The fire destroyed the custom-built smoker, damaged the kitchen and the furniture store next-door. As a temporary measure, Bluebonnet began trading at the John Curtin Hotel. But, with an enormous debt to the ATO and slow trade at the pub, things weren’t looking good for the future of Bluebonnet Barbecue. “It was really tough at one point,” Terliker admits. “The Curtin wasn’t profitable at all. We were losing a lot of money there, so it was make or break. We had to find something else or it was shut it down. We’re just lucky that we found the North Fitzroy site, because if we didn’t it would have been pretty dire.”
The North Fitzroy site was The Star, a 140-year old pub that had been the subject of much local controversy due to an unpopular building application. While the struggle between developers and the general public raged on, Terliker took over the lease. Bluebonnet and the Star was a perfect fit; the hotel had a lived-in vibe that suited barbecue beautifully, and even space for a bourbon bar on the corner. “We definitely got lucky with North Fitzroy,” says Terliker. “We went in there and checked it out on a Friday afternoon, and we had the keys by Monday.”
But, Terliker always knew that the Star was a temporary fix. At some point VCAT would make its ruling, and the tradies would move in to make way for the new apartment block. So, last year, he began looking around for Bluebonnet’s new home - somewhere the barbecue venue could put down roots for more than a year or two.
A few times a week, Terliker would drive past an empty building on Lygon Street, Brunswick East. Occasionally, he thought to himself that he should go and check it out. When he eventually did, his heart sank: the ceilings were way too low. “But I opened up one of the ceiling panels and was like ‘Holy Crap!’” he recalls. “It has these wooden beams and exposed ceilings. It just really fit our style.”
So Bluebonnet Barbecue finally has a home. And Terliker doesn’t plan to move anytime soon. “We’ve got a 20 year lease on this thing,” he says. “It’s pretty important that you make it right if you’re going in there for 20 years.”
And, now that he has a space for his restaurant, Terliker can actually focus on running the thing. And that, obviously, is a struggle in itself. “The industry has changed a hell of a lot, probably more in the last three years than in the last 20,” he says. “It was a lot cheaper for us when we first started cooking. For instance, we were paying about $7.50 a kilo for brisket, and now we’re paying like $12.50, sometimes $15 for brisket.”
While the price of produce has always fluctuated, Terliker believes that the pressure on restaurateurs has increased because of the increased focus on labour laws. “Especially over the last two years, it’s really tough now to make a dollar. It’s not easy at all,” he admits. “Staff are getting paid properly these days, and they’re getting what they deserve. But I’d love to have my labour costs under 30 percent as opposed to 45. But you just can’t do it anymore. It’s not worth the risk.”
From his point of view (and from mine, incidentally), if customers really care about fair employment practices - not to mention sustainability and ethical sourcing - they should be prepared to contribute a little more. “I think the customer needs to pay more if anything’s going to change,” he says. “Restaurants, if you’re really lucky, generally run on a 10-20 percent net profit. It’s definitely not easy.”
To ensure Bluebonnet stays profitable, Terliker has been drawing on his background in Michelin-Star restaurants such as PUBLIC in New York. “It’s always what I wanted to do - evolve into more of a restaurant as opposed to more of a barbecue joint,” he explains. “We’re doing more composed dishes these days, and not so much serving stuff out in little cardboard boxes.”
And, to get the most out of his kitchen, Bluebonnet has been pushing its off-site catering business, taking the food-truck to weddings, parties and music festivals. “We use the same kitchen for the food truck, and nothing changes as far as our staffing goes. We just bulk up on certain items on the menu that we already have,” says Terliker. “It’s an easy way for us to increase our profit.”
Still, going off-site has its downsides as well. “It’s super risky,” he admits. “We’ve done events where we’ve cooked 150kg of brisket and we’ve sold, like, five. One of the first things we’ll ask is how many food trucks will be there, which food trucks are there, and how many people are attending. We’ll always ask whether they have any numbers for previous years.”
But ultimately, what’s kept Bluebonnet afloat through all the trials and tribulations is Terliker’s commitment to quality. “When we first started I had this mentality where I didn’t care if I was the busiest, I just wanted to be the best,” he says. “That’s what I started with, but after a while you get much smarter with business. We still obviously try and be the best; but we also try and be the busiest too.”
Consistent quality was a conscious choice, one that Terliker made by observing previous food crazes. “It’s like the Mexican wave eight or nine years ago,” he explains. “Mamasita was always the one, and I guess I used them as an example. It was always a restaurant that was doing the best Mexican. They went down a different avenue, and they tried to be the best at what they were doing. And that’s what I wanted to do. We didn’t take shortcuts - we didn’t go out and buy a pallet smoker; we built a custom offset smoker just like how I learnt to do it in Texas. That was a big thing for me; making sure we were doing it traditionally, the way I was taught how to do it, and not taking shortcuts. People come back if your product’s good, right? It’s pretty simple.”
And, quality doesn’t simply mean the price of produce or the expertise with which it’s prepared: “Our staff are probably the biggest thing that helps us be successful,” says Terliker. “Our core team, we don’t want to lose them.”
To keep those true hospo professionals on board, Terliker adjusted the roster to ensure everyone stays fresh. “For the last two and a half years, all of my chefs have been on four days on, three days off,” he says. “We do four doubles in the kitchen, and we try not to work over 45 hours. Everyone gets their three days off, and that’s something that’s worked really well for us. It keeps everyone a bit more balanced.”
And, he’s always aware of that intangible thing called culture. While fine-dining is always seen as the pinnacle of industry, it was often the basement in terms of working conditions. “In London, I’d been working for Tom Aikins, and that was pretty nightmarish. He was known for branding his chefs with a hot palette knife and all that sort of stuff,” he recalls. “I ended up going to Vancouver and working in a restaurant over there called Shamba. The owner of that, he was really cool. He was a Belgian guy, and he used to take everyone paint balling and snowboarding and stuff like that. It was really cool. It’s where I learned that if you want the best out of your staff, you have to treat them well.”
And, treating staff well extends to Terliker too. After years of hustle, he’s finally at a point where he can, maybe, go a little easier on himself. “I definitely have more of a work-life balance, after the last six months, I guess,” he says. “Well, at the moment I don’t, but that’s because I’m focusing a lot more on the food truck to increase sales there. But I guess I can still take days off if I want to. Which is something that I’ve never been able to do, really. It does get easier.”
Let’s hope so.