On the wing with the Blackbird Café

What do you get when you combine a former professional tennis player, Darling Harbour, a neo-retro restaurant, colorful employees and great food? What you get is the extremely successful Blackbird Café.

As senior editor of PMQ Magazines, I have had the privilege of visiting pizzerias everywhere from Milan and Venice, to New York, Los Angeles, Sydney and nearly all points in between, but when I strolled off of the boardwalk and up the stairs into the Blackbird Café on a bustling Saturday night, I think I discovered one of my favorite pizzerias in the world. Sit back and let me tell you why.

I called Vincent Sciglitano, owner of the Blackbird Café, at the recommendation of some friends I have at Brisbane-based Beech Ovens who said this was the place to go while in Sydney. So, early Saturday morning I hopped on the monorail and enjoyed the scenic, elevated glide through the streets of downtown Sydney, then cruised over to Darling Harbour. I met up with Vincent, he offered me a cappuccino and we began the ritualistic ‘tell me about your business’ interview. I started inquiring about how he markets his restaurant (this guy has some great ideas I’ll share with you later in the story). I get some excellent information as he tells me about his formula for success, but about half way through, he tells me the only way I’ll really get what’s going on is to drop in later that night when things get jumping. We wrap up the interview; I finish my coffee and head back to the hotel.

Blackbird Background

Later that night, armed with my cameras, notebooks and all the other tools we magazine geeks tote around, I head back over to the restaurant. I grab a barstool, order a VB and start taking some notes about what I see. The first thing I notice is this place has all the feel of a very hip nightclub. There’s dance music going in the background, at least two bachelorette parties hovering around the bar, complete with giggling girls and brides-to-be wearing veils, a Bohemian waitstaff that is dressed as if they are headed out to the club themselves and a buzz that makes you wonder if you should order food or get up and dance. There was one element, though, that kept reminding me that this wasn’t a club, but a restaurant: the food…and lots of it being sold. The kitchen was open and I could watch the cooks leapfrogging over one another making food and shoveling pizzas in the oven. The counters were lined with plates ready to be shuttled out to the tables and everyone was eating. I was truly amazed at the whole spectacle of it all. How can you combine the atmosphere of a club with a restaurant without it becoming just a club?

“My father immigrated here from Italy and had the first pizzeria in the small town where they lived,” Vincent said. “When I played tennis, I did a lot of traveling in the U.S. and was able to see a lot of different restaurant designs, so when I decided to open this place I wanted to base the look on an American Diner theme, but with an edge. My idea was to give more for less, so at first nothing on the menu was over $12. Right now, we don’t have anything over $17. Value works, and so does great service, but the food has to be excellent. I think our secret recipe is the dough. It is a recipe that doesn’t leave you feeling bloated. One part of the secret is in the proofing of the dough, another is the timing when adding ingredients and the other is in the ovens, which cook evenly. Pizza is about 50 percent of our sales, but there’s more than food that makes this a success.”

The Restaurant

The restaurant’s design is a key part of the concept’s formula of success. Everything from the lighting, to the furniture and plates has an American retro feel, but with a modern edge. On the patio, there are vintage-looking deck chairs, the lights hanging over the bar have a simple pop art design (but each one costs $5,000 Vincent points out…made by some big shot famous designer), and even the furniture in the party room sticks to the neo-retro concept. “The atmosphere you create in your restaurant is the most important tool you can use to bring people in, but this is just part of the formula, along with price points and the quality of the food,” Vincent says.

The Staff

So the food is wonderful, the décor is trendy and the music is hip—how do you find a waitstaff to match? “I have created a great family here,” Vincent explains. “My employees are sort of Bohemian (hippie). Everyone has their own personality and we don’t look for professional waiters. The pierced ears, lips and chins, the colored hair and even they way they dress allows them to relax and be themselves, which makes them happier with the place where they work and it shows. The relaxed feel even flows out onto the customers and people have a good time. Personality and passion for life is what we look for in employees. You can see it in the way they talk, sit and carry themselves. We have never had to advertise for employees because everyone knows this is a fun place to work. Sure the music is louder than you might expect in a restaurant, but it adds to the ambiance and fun of coming to the Blackbird.

“Foods and restaurants go through cycles. We are always tweaking the restaurant and the food,” Vincent goes on to explain. “Nothing ever stays the same. If you don’t change, business will go away. We are always changing. Americans are unforgiving when it comes to change. If something changes they won’t come back, but people are more forgiving here in Australia. Once we get them in, we know they will come back because we give them more for their money in service, atmosphere and food.”

Marketing

During the interviews with Vincent, I asked what his best form of marketing was. He says one of the things that works best for him is his website (www.blackbirdcafe.com.au), email database and VIP program. “The website provides several advantages for us,” Vincent explains. “We have pictures on the site so that people will know what to expect when they come in, but it also gives them a chance to see our menu, prices, book reservations and functions that are going on and what we can offer for those wanting to have parties at the Blackbird. When we change the menu, it’s also a great way to get the new menus out.

“People sign up for the VIP program, which is very popular, on our site. As a VIP, we send discounts, new additions to the menu, and information about partnerships we have with other businesses on the first of the month. We have worked out special prices through partnerships with the IMAX Theater, car parks and other businesses in the area. It gives our customers a little something more.

“The site cost us about $5,000 to set up and we used another company to do the web design. You can have it done for less, say about $1,500 to $2,000, but this is a base and the site needs to be continually updated.”

One of the partnerships Vincent has worked out is with the car park. “We have a stamp we put on the car park ticket and when customers come in and eat, they can get a discount on the parking fee. We promote it through advertising boards in the car park, in our emails and we have a notice on the tip trays.”

Advertising Advice

“If I were to start a new place,” Vincent says, “my first advertising would be newspapers, but it isn’t something I would do all the time and rely on, just every once in a while after I was established. I would also do postcards because they are very successful and back up what I said in the papers and postcards. Once you become established you can create other partnerships like I have with IMAX, the car parks and other venues.

“I also donate free food to radio stations in exchange for free advertising. It’s smart business to give away some. Don’t be afraid to give back or give out something for free. A lot of people become greedy and don’t realize that you usually get back most of what you give out.”

Parties and Functions
Vincent says that marketing a restaurant is tough and recommends utilizing other tools at your disposal and re-invent yourself to keep things fresh and in demand. Marketing your pizza is a must he says, but you have to market other aspects of your business too. This is exactly what he does through offering catering for functions held in the Blackbird. On the far end of the restaurant, he has a party room where DJs set up and spin records for private parties. He rents this room out and sells catered food for the party. “You have to have functions and have to cater to them,” he says. “Don’t just look at it as a Friday and Saturday night thing, but something you want to keep booked all week. It is easy to promote events. We put them in our menus, on tables with table tents and through our website and VIP program. You have to go after business and not wait for it to come to you.”

Another thing they do to encourage parties to come in is to offer a free bottle of wine if you come in for your birthday. This is promoted with handouts attached to drink menus located on the tables.

Know Your Business

“These catered parties are great for business,” says Vincent, “but don’t make the mistake of saying ‘It sounds good, I’m going to do it.’ Do your research because mistakes are costly. My best advice is to first know your figures. As a business owner, you have to know the costs of doing anything and if you are going to make or lose money at it. Second, you need to have some form of people skills. You are dealing with the public and must know how to treat people like people and not just customers. Third, don’t over commit yourself. Learn the industry and work up to it. My father used to have a saying. It was ‘Quello chi va piano, va sempre lontano.’ It means ‘the one who goes slowly always goes farther.’

“A good example of this was when the Olympics came to Sydney. Many restaurants opened, but very few are still here. They didn’t know the area and didn’t make money after the Olympics left. You have to know your demographics and look at what other restaurants are doing and do something different. Look at what you could achieve and look at the worst thing that could happen and plan for it because it will happen and then where will you be in a year. Have short and long term goals.”

What makes the Blackbird Café a success? First, the atmosphere is magnetic. The décor is hip and trendy and mixed with energizing music. Second, the staff was fantastic. By allowing his employees to be themselves, he adds some color to his restaurant. Third, the food was fantastic and priced to sell. I have said before there are three G’s to a successful restaurant. They are Great food, Great service and Great environment. Any one of the three will make me come back to a restaurant. Great food makes me more tolerant of poor service or a boring atmosphere. Environment and great service from the staff creates the power of redemption for a less than desirable meal. Give me great food and an atmosphere that's fun and I'll serve myself. Born from the growing demands from other owners for advice on restaurant operations, Vincent has developed his own restaurant consulting company. The development of this has not only opened the doors for Vincent to share his expertise throughout the industry but also develop a multi-dimensional service with Vincent's unorthodox yet successful approach.

When the food is ready to be served, the cook turns on the light above the food. This not only highlights the food for customers to see, but the lights are also heating lamps. Cool idea, huh?
Here is a sample of some of the promotions Vincent uses to get customers into the Blackbird. You can also see some of the companies he works with to offer prizes.
Catered parties are part of the attraction for Blackbird Cafe’s customers, and a big part of Vincent’s bottom line. Customers can rent out this room and Blackbird can supply the food and DJ.