From the source: Costi’s Seafood

Costi’s has been synonymous with the seafood industry since Steve’s father Con opened up his fish shop in Lakemba, Sydney, in 1958. Now, Steve has launched a new concept, Cook with Costi, a retail experience combining seafood with meat and dining with retail.

Inside Retail Weekly: Tell me about the new Cook with Costi concept at Broadway in Sydney.

Steve Costi: Craig Cook has been a friend of mine since I was at David Jones and he was the butcher. We were very good friends and always have been. In the past year or two, we’ve been talking about our businesses, then realised it’s hard standing on your own. We both agreed that we could have a situation where we could marry seafood and meat, where people could meander from the meat to the fish counter, and we talked about how to do it from a back-of-house point of view. We decided that with the first concept, we’d find a site and bring down the dividing wall between us to make it look like one big store. But I’d still operate my side and he would operate his.

So we sold the concept to Mirvac and decided to use this as a pilot and see what the reaction would be like from customers. It’s doing really well but with the next one, now that we know we can work together, we want to make it so that you can shop over here and shop over there, and then pay for it all at, say, the butcher. It’s good for the customer so they don’t have to take out their credit cards twice.

But the most important part of the concept is the fish and chips in the middle to bring the best of both worlds together. At the next store, we want a lot more seating, where it’s a seafood and meat cafe, people can sit at a table with a proper knife and fork, you can order a T-bone and Craig can cook it for you, or you can get some salmon and then we’ll get it licensed as well. This is the future.

I’ll still run our independent fresh seafood business, but I want to focus on this concept. We’ve had offers from other landlords already who have come out and looked at the Broadway store, even after just a few weeks. So right now, we’re going to spend the next six months ironing out this business. Some things will sell and some won’t – what are people looking for? This is all the information we need to come back to us so we can mix and mould and change it and in six months, we’ll have it down pat.

It was the brainchild of Craig and me, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be in a shopping centre. We could be in a factory outside somewhere – something more quirky. The main thing is parking. I also think that if you’ve got a good name and you’re a destination, the store doesn’t have to be in the best position, but it needs accessibility for cars or foot traffic.

But being out of a centre, it will let us operate our business quite differently as an independent. We won’t have to report to landlords about our trading hours and we can open and close whenever we want. With centres, they’ve got their normal hours and if you go past that time, they will start charging you for the extra hours. It’s crazy.

We’ve just got to establish this concept, get all the bugbears out of it and be comfortable with it. Then I can’t see why we can’t open up a chain of these, if it’s done properly.

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IRW: Let’s talk about going interstate.

SC: Not in the next two months. I think we’ll just stick to NSW in the next 12 months. I’m still doing my concept in fish and chips and fresh in Melbourne. We just opened up Hawthorne we’re going to open up in Croydon. I’ve got about half a dozen offers to open up in Melbourne. It’s great, but on the sales side, with Cook with Costi – you need volume, especially in seafood. You need sales, because seafood is perishable, and you need to turn it over quickly. You’ve got to be careful with it.

IRW: What are your thoughts on competing against major supermarkets?

SC: As an independent retailer, you’ve got to start positioning yourself a bit differently to the supermarkets because if you don’t, you’ll die. There has to be a reason why customers will pay extra to shop from an independent. There has to be quality and service. Craig says you can dress a shop up and make it look amazing, but it’s all irrelevant if your quality and service aren’t right. You can goldplate it, diamond stud it and spend millions on a fit-out but I’d rather do the reverse. I’d rather spend the money on training, get good staff, make sure the quality and service are next-level, so customers say, ‘You know what? I paid more for that, but wow.’ One thing you remember when you leave a store is the service and when you get home, it’s the product.

IRW: Customers also like to shop at independents because they like that relationship with the people behind the counter.

SC: Major supermarkets have positioned themselves to be away from service, so that’s why we need to ramp up the service. That’s why I’ve introduced Cook with Costi. Margins are getting tighter on wild-caught fish.

Supermarkets back in the day didn’t have seafood. They had frozen cape cod and bits and pieces. There was no competition. Now that Coles and Woolies are into seafood, we’ve got 1500 retail outlets offering seafood at a much lower price. I get it, to the normal person with a wage, they’d love to buy fish from an independent and they understand they’re not getting the same quality [at a supermarket], but they can’t afford it.

Running a business back then, you just had to worry about paying wages and rent – there weren’t a lot of add-on expenses. Now, 35 years later, times are changing. The Award is too complicated, they’re making it too hard on us and if you put a foot wrong, they come down on you like a ton of bricks. It’s not that you’re doing it deliberately, it’s just a mistake.

IRW: Well, the government’s having a review of the Award now.

SC: They should be, if they really want to get serious about letting people trade and not be concerned about all the penalty awards, different grades, overtime, whether someone’s part-time, full-time or casual…it’s very complex. They have to draw a line in the sand and make it simple. I don’t care if you have to pay more per hour, just make it simple. The challenging part is I’ve got people who work a 38-hour-week and they come up to my managers and say, ‘I need the extra money, can I do more hours?’ Then you have to say ‘No, because then there’s time-and-a-half and we can’t afford that.’ Then people look elsewhere for a second job. There has to be some kind of situation where you can give people more money without being penalised as well.

IRW: Have you noticed a change in the consumer when it comes to sustainable fishing?

SC: Definitely. People are so much more aware now through social media. People are very aware of sustainable, provenance, transparency through the information that’s out there. We do get the younger generation asking questions. Even though they’re aware of sustainability though, I still rely on mums and dads to shop with me. They’re my bread and butter.

There are a lot of things we should be doing. Consultants have said maybe we should put a leaflet in everyone’s bag about where the fish is from. But all that costs money. Then I need someone in head office who’s producing all kinds of situations for ticketing, then we need to print them. Unfortunately when you start doing that, you have to load up the prices. Where does it end?

IRW: Where does your seafood come from? How is your product different to what’s in major supermarkets?

SC: The supermarket has a relationship with a salmon company, I have a relationship with all salmon companies. I do that because sometimes at salmon company A, the salmon they produce isn’t of good quality, the colour could be wrong or the fish are too small so they haven’t got the thickness I want. Therefore, I’ll buy from a different company. There are three or four major salmon companies that I buy from, I never put my eggs in one basket. As a businessman, I need the flexibility to change. Sure, I’ll argue with a supplier about price, but predominantly, I won’t let it get in the way of quality.

We also carry a lot more variety than supermarkets, a lot more variety of fillets and prawns. There has to be a reason for people to shop with us. If they want cuttlefish and squid ink risotto, we’ll have it, one way or another.

IRW: How many stores have you got at the moment?

SC: I’m up to 23 stores in NSW and Melbourne. It’s been a great journey, I love it and if I had my time again, I’d do it all again, even with the ups and downs. I can’t sit here and say every store I’ve done has been a winner, that’s just ridiculous. You’re going to lose. You can’t back a winner all the time, it’s unrealistic; but as long as you’ve got more winners than losers, you’ll be at the front. That’s how I look at business.

There have been times where it’s been terrible and I’ve had to negotiate getting out of a lease with a landlord and it’s been ugly, but it is what it is.

No one goes into business wanting to lose money. Everyone goes in with the best of intentions to be successful. Unfortunately, things can go pear-shaped and a lot of times, you can blame an individual operator for going pear-shaped or you can blame other factors, but you can cross your t’s, dot your i’s, have spreadsheets and predictions and cashflow, but they’re not real.

What’s real is when you get in the store, that first day you get in, put your apron on, work behind the counter – that’s what’s real – and at the end of the day, what you’ve got in the till is real.

Even though you need projections, from my point of view, you’ve got to always work on the worse, worse, worse case scenario and whether you could still make the business stack up. These days, when you hear of people who expand too quickly too soon, I just think, is it about their ego, do they get too excited? Have they got two successful stores and think it’s too easy to make money?

IRW: How has the retail customer changed over the years?

SC: They’re more savvy, they know prices, they know what the product is, they understand it more than they used to. I think the biggest thing for customers is with all these cooking shows, their awareness of how to cook is much higher. They’ve become more creative in how they cook. I look at my core business and it’s still about selling fresh products. We do things like salmon cakes and Thai fish cakes, but they’re an add-on, they’re not the core part of the business. But I believe customers’ awareness of food now is so exciting. It’s a really good time.

IRW: Now that you’ve combined with Craig and doing dining in-store, you’re in hospitality now. How do you feel about that?

SC: Trust me, if you’ve been in retail the way we have, hospitality is a walk in the park. I could ring up an agency and get a concierge or waitstaff and those people have already done a course. But I can’t call and ask for a filleter. It’s very different. That’s the one thing the seafood industry has fallen down in – they haven’t made it a TAFE course to become a fishmonger or a seafood retailer.

IRW: In that case, how do people usually get trained?

SC: There’s no course unless you do a restaurant course and they teach you how to understand seafood. But we take people who are wet behind the ears. All I want is for people to come in with a smiling face and I’ll teach the rest. If they’re not happy to be there, I can’t change their personality and I don’t want to do that. I want them to be naturally happy and bubbly – that’s infectious and that resonates with customer, which is critical.

We try to hammer them about customer service. We try to get it in their head that I don’t pay your bills, the customer is the one who pays your wages. Not me. That’s how I look at it.

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