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Author: Kit Kilroy
Earlier this year, a trendy new Sri Lankan restaurant opened on Enmore Road, in the very heart of one of Sydney's busiest bar and eatery suburbs, Newtown.
Though the busy street is already packed-full of eateries, Colombo Social is unique. Though the food and drinks are excellent, the true magic lies in its social enterprise objective, employing asylum seekers alongside experienced hospitality staff. This synergy of quality and purpose comes from a shared vision between the restaurant’s owners and speaks to the undeniable success it has experienced since opening its doors.
When you visit the restaurant, it’s popularity will come as no surprise. The decor, menu and staff all seem to be components of a well-oiled machine. A machine that has been fully booked from day one.
Instead, the most surprising part of the restaurant’s genesis is the fact that they had little to no marketing plan upon opening. “We did, and we didn’t,” Shaun, the restaurant’s co-owner admitted. “I’ll always say that Peter (the restaurant’s other owner) had a recurring nightmare before we started; that we opened the doors and no one was here.”
Luckily for the duo, that was far from reality.
“Sometimes,” Shaun jokes, “that now seems like a nice dream, rather than a nightmare.”
Though the pair didn’t have a clear-cut marketing plan in mind before opening, they did set some wheels in motion. From there, the restaurant’s unique vision began to speak for itself.
“We engaged a PR agency to determine the best way to tell our story without it becoming a sob story,” Shaun emphasised. Despite the restaurant’s social aspect, the owners still wanted it to be a place that resonated with everyone, regardless of whether or not they knew the story behind it.
“it’s not just “here’s a restaurant”, and it’s not just “here’s a social enterprise.” It’s “here’s a restaurant that has a social purpose, and by dining there you can see, and you can tangibly feel connected to asylum seekers.” Shaun is keenly aware that many customers do come in after hearing about Colombo Social’s charitable purpose, but rather than viewing it as an individual achievement of the restaurant, he considers it a statement that the people of Sydney do care about asylum seekers.
As heartwarming as the support might be, the restaurant is about much more than one factor or the other. Co-owner Peter Jones-Best reminded me: “It’s a combination of both and it’s really important to make sure that people view that because it’s good drinks, it’s good food, it’s a good atmosphere. We put a lot of time and effort into the fit-out and the team we selected to train the asylum seekers. So we didn’t want that to get lost in the noise as well.”
"Here’s a restaurant that has a social purpose, and by dining there you can see, and you can tangibly feel connected to asylum seekers."
In addition to people coming to support the restaurant’s social message, the duo also pointed out that some come in because the interior looks cool, others have heard great things about the food. And that’s what the owners want.
Above all, Shaun and Peter strive to make the restaurant as amazing as it can be, in all aspects. Before opening, they even considered whether or not to share that they’d be employing asylum seekers as part of their project. “We want to stand alone on our two feet as a restaurant and as a bar while having a social purpose that sits behind us... it’s not really something that we throw in people’s faces. It’s just an undercurrent.”
Judging by the buzz, it’s safe to say that they have. Before having its first-ever marketing meeting (which only happened last week), the restaurant had a lot of pre-coverage, and because of it, the venue has been fully booked out since day one.
Colombo Social has been written about on Broadsheet, Time Out, Concrete Playground, and even appeared on SBS. With the initial success, media coverage has provided more of a constant stream of customers, rather than a sudden rise to fame. “There’s not been a noticeable peak or a trough,” Peter told me. “It’s not a huge restaurant, so it’s not like we’re getting three thousand covers a night, but we’re full, and we’re booked, and we’re usually booked the day before.”
While the restaurant stays packed continuously, though, the duo has noticed some changes with their social media following. “You can kind of see a spike after our TV appearances. After SBS it was noticeable.' With the PR company they partnered with from the get-go running the social media accounts, Shaun and Peter leave a pretty hands-off approach.
“Peter has thirteen photos on Instagram, I have one on my personal Instagram,” Shaun jokes. “We suck at that kind of stuff. Just a preface to this meeting is that we don’t know anything about social media, so we have no idea.”
Even without a marketing plan, the restaurant’s strong aesthetic shines through in everything Shaun and Peter have executed, and it’s equally reflected in the media coverage Colombo Social has received. With everything from the mural on the wall representing the owners’ mothers, to the terra cotta pots symbolising Sri Lankan cooking, each little detail ties back to Sri Lanka or the owners’ vision.
It just goes to show what a powerful ingredient passion can be. Because of Shaun and Peter’s vision and the unique synergy created by a great restaurant and the great project, they have been able to prove that sometimes quality speaks for itself. As was once said in a 1989 cult movie, “if you build it, they will come.” If Colombo Social doesn’t prove it, not much else will. Armed with an idea and their passion, this duo is proving that sometimes greatness can come first, and then the attention will naturally follow.
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