Founded in 2013, Fancy Hank’s was the brain-child of Mike Patrick and Kent Bell, two friends and kitchen buddies from Melbourne. After many years working for big restaurants and inspired by a trip to Austin, Texas, Mike and Kent decided to bring traditional American barbecue to Australia. What ensued was a venture that spanned various partnerships, a brick-and-mortar premise, and a catering arm that’s made Fancy Hank’s the go-to for authentic American BBQ this side of Down Under.
As part of the ongoing Behind the Kounta series, we chatted to co-founder Mike Patrick about how Fancy Hank’s came to be a top Melbourne-based restaurant from its humble beginnings as a pop-up, and what they’ve learned along the way.
Tell us how Fancy Hank’s was born
I’ve always had a huge passion for wood-fired cooking, having over 16 years of experience doing it. As a big fan of both travelling and discovering new cultures and cooking methods around the world, it didn’t escape my notice that most international cuisines had a woodfire element in some form or another.
Back in the day, I worked in Ladro for five years and also at San Telmo, a South American barbecue restaurant (both based in Melbourne).
But after being a chef for over 20 years in big restaurants, I guess my desire for more freedom and creativity finally won over, and it was when I went to the USA for the first time – in particular when I visited Austin, Texas and learned about their long history of barbecue and smoking meats – that I knew it was time to take the plunge and start something of my own.
Australians are already (quite famously) fans of barbecue. What I’d learned in Texas completely blew my mind and inspired me to bring what I thought was a great product back home to an audience that would be receptive.
So after I returned from my travels, I teamed up with Kent to do a pop-up with a trailer that housed a smoker. We took it to lawn bowls clubs at the weekend and served brisket to people throughout the summer. We had low overheads, a tiny staff count and just cooked a little bit of everything to see if it sold. At that stage I just wanted to see what the response was from the market and if people would love it as much as I do. And lucky for me, they did!
Location is everything as they say. How did you choose the site and generate interest for your pop-up?
Our focus has always been to create a great food experience. Because of this, we considered what people would be doing (would they be specifically going to that area for food? After-work drinks or shopping maybe?), what mood our potential customers would be in and what vibe the location had.
We also needed an under-utilised space so we didn’t have to deal with too much competition. We looked for opportunities for mutually beneficial relationships, where we could both add to each other’s offering. The lawn bowls club was the perfect choice – they had a bar but no food, people generally went there with their friends and family, spending time relaxing and being happy. It was the perfect spot for us.
We got the word out via social media, this was a few years ago when it used to be easier. We would just do a shout out on the day and some posts a few days before to generate buzz.
How did Fancy Hank’s go from a pop-up to a hospitality brand with so many different elements?
The pop-up while fun, was very weather dependent – we would have a great summer then have nothing to do in winter. So towards the end of our second summer we bought a food truck so we could operate year-round.
Speed of service is extremely important as competition is high in the food truck business and people don’t want to wait – if the queue is too long they will simply move on. Consistency comes a close second; if you want to build a reputation for having good food, you can’t afford to have an off-day.
While we ran the food truck and pop-up, we’d get requests to do birthday parties and weddings, which led to us starting our catering arm. Everything to do with events and catering grew organically from the presence of our food truck and now we have over 30 weddings booked for this season alone.
From there, we approached the pub at the Vic market and discussed joining forces with its owners to provide a more holistic barbecue and beer experience. Whilst we were at the market, we kept our eyes open for other long term leases in Melbourne.
Nothing came up for a while and then out of the blue, we spotted one available on Bourke Street. It was a location we felt would bring many different types of potential customers for us, from theatre-goers to corporate-lunchers to travellers, so we jumped at the offer.
Before that point we were serving food at someone else’s establishment and had no control over the environment or music. Being able to craft the entire experience for our customers was a dream for us and it definitely paid off.
Which parts of the business are the most profitable, the easiest to run, and the most fun?
The catering arm is no doubt the most profitable. It earns us a lot more because everything is negotiated up front and prepaid in full before the event. There’s a lot less wastage because you know how many people you need to feed, and we can charge for additional manpower and extra time that’s needed for a specific event. This you can’t do in a venue.
The easiest to run would definitely be the restaurant on Bourke Street in Melbourne, it’s a consistent trade which keeps ticking on throughout the year. We do have quieter times and run into some challenges, but overall it’s a straightforward year round money-maker.
The events are the most fun, especially the ones where we collaborate with distilleries and wineries. It’s always really interesting for us to get to see how others operate.
Having made the switch from chef to business owner, how has your day-to-day life changed?
I’ve gone from staying awake all night smoking-brisket, to having 75 staff and a handful of businesses to manage!
Dealing with humans and a business as a whole is definitely different to dealing with food and being in a kitchen, it definitely requires a much broader set of skills. Every day I learn something new and completely different to what I was doing before.
What would you say are the keys to your success?
Good customer service, food production, financial control and marketing.
You need a strong plan and a clear vision. We’ve always had a business plan that details where we are, where we want to be and how we plan to get there. We never deviate too much from this and it’s been vital to our success.
The other thing is knowing when to react – as a business owner, it can be difficult not to let your emotions get the better of you. For example, our food truck and catering arm struggles through the winter, and during those times it’s easy to panic because the numbers can look a bit scary.
The temptation to chop and change for temporary relief can be strong, but you could risk confusing your customers and end up hindering your longer term growth. I’d say one of the key things business owners like us need to do is be calm and carry on with confidence.
How do you find good staff, and what advice do you have for finding and keeping good employees?
We have a pretty tough recruitment process – we do very detailed reference checks and always conduct two interviews. The first we use to shortlist people that seem suitable, and the second we drill into to help us make our decision.
The type of food we sell doesn’t require that much expertise – we can teach our new joiners the technical skills they need on the job – so we look for people that want to learn and want to be here. For us, eagerness and willingness/ability to learn trumps skill every time.
It’s no secret that finding and keeping good staff is a huge issue facing the hospitality industry right now, especially with all the recent visa changes. We’ve been quite lucky because we have multiple arms to the business and are able to offer career growth to a level that many other restaurants can’t.
In line with this, we spend a lot of time and effort on training. We recruit people for their attitude and constantly develop them so they feel like they are learning and progressing with us. For example, if someone wants to move from a role as supervisor of a food truck to a chef in the kitchen, we do our best to support them and make the change happen.
This freedom and opportunity keeps staff interested, helps us create a great team and ultimately lowers our staff turnover.
What culture and values do you try to instil in your staff?
Professionalism, gratefulness and transparency.
From the kitchen to the front-of-house, we place great emphasis on professionalism. We also communicate our business plans with all our staff to get them excited about the future.
We teach our staff to be thankful to all our suppliers and to every customer, whether we’re on the phone to our beer brewers or meeting a new guest. There are a lot of other places to eat in Melbourne and they chose us. For this, we should be grateful and we actively communicate that.
Can you describe the change in staff over this time?
As the business grew we needed more expertise in marketing, operations and finance. I learnt a lot along the way and gradually spent less of my time back-of-house. We were also lucky because we went from a partnership running the pop-up and food trucks, to adding another two partners from the Queen Vic Pub which helped broaden our skills base.
We now have four partners, and managers for each operation reporting into us.
What marketing activities have you done that have worked well?
We started off using Facebook as our only marketing channel, simply posting updates about what we had coming up. That worked well for us at the start but we’ve obviously had to up our game as the business grew, to keep ourselves at the top-of-mind.
Our social posts now are about a lot more than what’s on – we post videos, pictures, shout outs to other people and businesses, and we run lots of mini promotions too. We know we have to provide generally interesting content that is engaging and where possible, interactive.
We also do a bit of radio and some guerilla poster runs. This suits the Fancy Hank’s brand – we don’t take ourselves seriously and like to have a bit of fun.
We measure the effectiveness and track our spend on social media, radio and posters by doing a different campaign for each platform, running them for a month, then comparing the offer and the marketing spend to the sales data to observe any revenue spikes that can be attributed to a particular campaign. We now have a marketing manager to help us with this too.
Where do you source your produce from, and what equipment can’t you live without?
There are many elements that contribute to us being able to run the various parts of the business in a smooth, scalable and transparent way.
We get amazing beef from Gipslands O’Connors, who source all their meat from small farmers.
In terms of kitchen equipment, the smoker is absolutely something we can’t do without. We have a two-tonne custom-made offset smoker made by Silver Creek Smokers. This is where we smoke all our meats, using just timber and charcoal, and it runs 24/7.
Software-wise, we use Kounta as our point of sale platform for most of our operations, including our food truck, events, pop-ups and catering arm – it helps keep all the important numbers we need to know in one place. We also use OpenTable for restaurant reservations and Xero for our accounting.
What would you say are the main lessons you’ve learned from your venture?
Whether it’s a small birthday party, a tiny pop-up or a seven-day-a-week restaurant, always stay true to your product and what you believed in.
For us this means we smoke meats with timber and charcoal every single day with no compromises. It would be so much easier to use the oven more, but we wouldn’t be as popular if we took any shortcuts.
Ultimately, our success is due to the fact that we’re still delivering the product we believed in right at the start of our journey, and to that we’ll hold strong.