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5 things running my university canteen taught me about successfully running a business

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During my time at Monash University I entered a tender looking to diversify their canteen offerings from average bain marie style cuisine and make it more multicultural and appealing to students.

I managed to beat the big catering companies to become the chief hospitality operator at the esteemed university and was eventually asked to service the canteens of all Monash campuses.

This experience came in really handy for my next venture which was the Rice Workshop, a Japanese food concept I developed with my chef, Tomohiro Suzuki.

These are the top five business lessons I picked up from my time running the uni canteen.

1. Be hands on all the time

In the beginning, you should always know what is going on and how to operate/fix things.

Don’t stretch yourself too thin though.

When I first took over the Monash Canteen at the Caulfield Campus I was extremely hands on from the beginning and got involved in everything from the pitch to the university, follow up meetings, remodeling the canteen, overseeing finances, hiring staff, liaising with food suppliers, launching the canteen, customer service and marketing our new product.

Once the business took off and I was able to employ others to oversee certain sections/parts of the business so I could oversee growth and development, I would have regular meetings with key personnel to see that everything was running smoothly.

This lesson is something I have applied to all my other businesses, including Rice Workshop.

With my business partner Tom I allow him to take control of all the recipe creation, but every part of the business I have an insight on and am kept up to date with.

We now have 11 stores open with more growth planned.

A massive focus for me is being able to balance my time to make sure all areas are given enough attention, which I believe I am doing well at considering the success of all the stores we have opened in such a short amount of time (two years).

2. Build relationships with your customers and focus on customer service

A happy customer often means a repeat customer.

By giving the customer what they want, from great service, great affordability, and an imaginative and different food offering from competitors, customers will grow loyal to the brand.

I found when changing the food offering at Monash that people who had previously shunned the canteen were delighted to have something new and delicious to try.

That matched with great customer service meant that the end to end experience for the consumer often had a direct correlation with repeat patronage.

We have found the same thing to be true at Rice Workshop.

If you respect your customer and offer them the same level of product and service that you would expect from a business, it is true that they will often return.

Listening to customer feedback, taking it on board and constantly looking for was to improve your business would also impact on your success.

3. Understand the marketplace – do research

Before I took over the canteen at Monash the food on offer was very bland.

When pitching for the canteen contract I did an analysis of the student demographic and found that a recent influx of international students had not been accounted for.

With this in mind we pitched to include an international array of foods available for students to choose from including Italian focaccias, Indian curries, Singaporean noodles, and Chinese rice dishes. We also made sure to offer sandwiches and some fast food items that would appeal to all taste buds.

Implementing these food choices into the offering not only allowed students to eat foods that were used to, but it also allowed other students the opportunity to explore cuisines that they may not have been exposed to.

It is a mentality that we took when developing the Rice Workshop concept.

Most people in Melbourne associated Japanese food with sushi. We set about giving them an affordable gateway into tasting other Japanese flavours and styles of food with a minimal buy in.

4. Educate the market – teach people through experience

Following on from understanding the market place, educating the market was extremely important.

As I previously stated, many students at Monash had not tried the international cuisines that we had on offer. Giving them the opportunity to try something different for lunch that did not break the bank, was fast, fresh and also flavoursome, we were able to attract a different style of customer than who was previously reached before.

It has been the same for Rice Workshop.

Our motto is creating the taste of Japan, in your bowl, everyday meaning that Rice Workshop is affordable, accessible and has enough variety in its menu that customers can come back over and over again and educate both their palate and mindset about Japanese food, with limited financial investment.

It is this cost structure and educational endeavor that has allowed Rice Workshop to expand at the rate is it.

5. Be loyal to your staff and they will be loyal to you. Flexibility and friendly atmosphere

If you don’t have a great support crew to work with your business will not function.

Within all my businesses, whether it was the Monash canteen, Dessert Story or Rice Workshop I always instilled a positive, happy environment for my workers that allowed them to grow. If they were/are loyal to me, I am loyal to them.

This was evident when I eventually sold the canteen business to another company. Many of the staff that began with me in the early days was still working for me.

It was so humbling to know that they were happy to return to work each day. It made all my hard work worth it knowing that happy workers sent out positive messages about the brand to my customers, which made their experience a great one.

David Loh is a serial entrepreneur with seven food ventures under his belt so far. His latest is Rice Workshop, a Japanese food chain. Since opening the first store, the business has grown from one flagship store in Melbourne’s Chinatown to now having nine stores open Victoria wide and a flagship Sydney store in Westfield Pitt Street. David plans to have 15 Rice Workshop stores open by the end of 2015.

Image courtesy of Brook James

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