On his way to India in 1999, Will Ford stopped by New York to visit family, and he has since traversed the country in a pickup truck and established businesses on each coast – all while keeping his Aussie accent strong!
As told to Gordon Little
Not long after I arrived, my brother Frank, cousin Bill and I opened the first Australian restaurant in America. When we started Eight Mile Creek, Australian wine was just coming into the fore. It was very affordable with the Aussie dollar worth only seventy cents in the US, so people were interested because we were making some very good affordable wine. We were also getting a fair bit of press in various magazines and wine catalogues, where the talk was about value-for-money wine. There was no ‘food-speak’, but the ‘wine-speak’ was taking off. And we were one step ahead of our American peers, because we knew more about Aussie wine.
We were just a bunch of silly country kids, mate, and that’s probably why Eight Mile Creek succeeded. There was no fear, because we didn’t really know what we were doing. We loved Australian wine, we loved Australian food and Aussie beer. We were very proud of our country and there was nothing like that in New York, so we just went for it. We thought ‘let’s show America how great our food is, how great our wine is, how fun our social and sporting life is, how great our beers are’. We built on the concept of ‘throw another shrimp on the barbie’ and the image of a bunch of people sitting on the beach in a faraway country, but also there’s another side of Australia where it’s quite cultural and quite advanced.
Gum Tree is a new business that I run with my wife, Lori. It’s a one-of-a-kind home and gift shop with an Aussie-inspired cafe. I’m a bit more cynical in business; opening a restaurant in a foreign country is always going to be difficult. But it’s probably a bit less stressful this time around, because I know what’s expected. Plus my wife helps drive a lot of this – she’s a marketing girl and knows that side of the business very well.
LA is the toughest place in America to open a restaurant. It’s harder than in New York with a lot of agencies that have their fingers in the pie and they don’t talk to one another. Plus the licenses are expensive and have quite a lot of restrictions.
I miss New York. It’s so multicultural and the food and wine scene is congested, so if you go to a restaurant in New York and it’s not that good, you just walk next door. In LA it’s a car culture, you have to drive somewhere else, so I don’t get the feeling that the competition is the same. The service, quality and quantity of food and wine is great on the East Coast.
But I love LA for the quality of life and the weather. I’m by the beach and it’s a good place to be for a family. The only down side is that you have to drive everywhere and it doesn’t have the same energy of New York; it’s a bit slower-paced and more family-oriented.
There’s very little high-end Aussie wine in LA. It’s tough to find a nice bottle of D’Arenberg Dead Arm, for instance but you’ll see sub-$20 wine everywhere. There are bargains to be had, but there isn’t the variety here compared to the East Coast. It’s the Foster’s thing: people think Foster’s is Australian for beer or that YellowTail is Australian for wine, when really it’s just a small part of our beer and wine culture, but it has taken on a larger-than-life persona. Australia went a bit into mass marketing, and that diluted away from the finer wines we were producing.
The main piece of advice I’d give to an Aussie wanting to start a business in the US is to know your market. Get a bit of professional advice first and you’ll need a good accountant and lawyer from the start. They’ll help you understand the business, alcohol, health or employment laws. Do your market research and look at the business and the clientele – are you in the right place? Location, location, location. Australia has a good image in America, but you’ll want to know the market and clientele. Then if you still want to do it, do it. Don’t just try to open something willy-nilly!