HomeArticlesBusiness & InvestMeating the challenge: Mudgeeraba’s iconic Woodchoppers Inn has come up with an innovative way of surviving lockdown
Woodchoppers Inn, 1996

Meating the challenge: Mudgeeraba’s iconic Woodchoppers Inn has come up with an innovative way of surviving lockdown

Tim Baker | April 2020

How does a much-loved local pub and restaurant operate during social distancing and restrictions on public gatherings?

While many businesses have simply closed the doors and gone into hibernation, Mudgeeraba’s popular Woodchoppers Inn has found an innovative way to keep the doors open and their loyal customers happy.

Well-known for its range of BBQ and smoked meats, the crew at the Woodchoppers Inn have pivoted to a take-away business model as well as retailing fresh meats and other kitchen staples. And much to the surprise of management the new business model is proving a hit with its loyal, local clientele.

“I’m bloody surprised. We’re not a business or a product that has a tradition of take away,” says Woodchoppers’ Stephen O’Brien.

While Woodchoppers Inn has a long history as a much-loved Australian-style bistro, it has always been able to adapt and move with the times. The building itself may be steeped in history, but the family-run business has proven itself remarkably nimble and agile in changing times.

When the corona virus restrictions first came into effect and pubs, clubs and restaurants were shutdown, the team at Woodchoppers weren’t sure how they’d survive. But necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.

“We looked at our product range, and what could be portable,” says Stephen. Woodchoppers had already adopted a US-style BBQ and smoked meats menu as a point of difference back in 2015. Stephen had spent time living in the US and experienced first-hand the obsessive devotion to BBQ meats there and felt the time was right to introduce it to their customers.

Stephen spoke to a colleague in the US and learnt how cryovaced meats could keep for up to three months and a lightbulb went on about a way forward for the business. In the space of a few weeks Woodchoppers has developed a takeaway business for its BBQ meats.

“We’re at the top of the hill, we’re not in a shopping centre, we’re a destination,” says Stephen. They knew they would have to innovate to make the trip up the hill worthwhile for their customers. First, they began cryovacing their BBQ and smoked meats and offering them as a take away service, with free delivery within 7.5 km, or within 20km for orders over $100.

Next, they spoke to their meat suppliers and asked them to pack fresh meats for sale to expand their product line. When they realised pasta, flour and eggs were in short supply in supermarkets, they spoke to their wholesalers and added a range of kitchen staples to their take away menu. Their popular pot pies and sticky date puddings were frozen and also added to their product line.

Competitive pricing was also key to attracting customers. “All our fresh meat we priced the same price as supermarkets, and people could have confidence that it’s good quality,” says Stephen. They offered a family feast of their most popular BBQ meats, smoked wings and desserts for a 20% discount and they’ve marched out the door. A pasta pack of fresh mince, pasta and pasta sauce has also proven popular. They’ve also made their range of craft beers and wines available to take away.

“We’re giving them a viable alternative to boring take away and it’s allowing us to get some dough in the door to keep staff on,” says Stephen. “It’s just worked. The whole concept surprised me. I didn’t think it would work, that was the biggest surprise, that there was a demand there.”

Their success is testimony to the quality of their products, the convenience of the cryovacced meals and the loyalty they have fostered among their local community for the past 25 years. “People love the ribs. That product, once its cryovvacced, you can put the ribs in the microwave. Chicken wings were a big one too. You can boil them in a bit of water for two minutes and they’re ready to go, heat and eat. They’ve done really well.”

The new business model has also helped their suppliers maintain some sort of income. “All my wholesalers were saying, ‘What am I going to do?” I realised, I’ve got the supply chain and I’ve got the channel,” says Stephen. “We’re trying to support locals who have supported us. 95% of our orders are coming from people within 3-4 km of us. We’ve got staff who have been with us for 15 years. They see we’re trying to do something to keep those long-term locals employed.”

Woodchoppers are fortunate that they own their building so don’t have to cover rent, but even so Stephen says they can only hold on for so long. “Even though we’ve had success with what we’re doing it’s like the little boy sticking his finger in the dyke. We can probably hang on another two weeks without a business loan,” he says.

The building itself has an interesting history and began its life as the Palm Beach Bowls Club in the 1940s. It was moved to Mudgeeraba on the back of a truck in 1974 and served as a bistro and carvery, a second-hand shop and even a Catholic Church for a time.

Stephen’s parents John and Carol bought the semi-derelict building in April 1995 and did a major renovation to it and opened for business in November of the same year. Their son Stephen returned from overseas 11 years ago and took over the running of the business, even though he and his parents had no experience in hospitality.

“My old man’s like me, a chartered accountant … None of us had any experience in it. I was in IT sales,” says Stephen. His sister Prue also joined the business. Despite their lack of experience, Stephen says the fundamentals of the business were similar to his previous career. “You’ve got a service and a customer, and you’ve got to understand what a punter wants,” he says. His wife Sammy was the exception with a background in the food business and she stepped into the role of head chef.

“Hospitality means being hospitable, creating a great environment. It’s a good, old country-style pub and we know our customers,” he says. He cites the example of the local couple who come in every Friday and order the same thing – staff know them by name, know their drink orders and how they like their chips cooked.

When they made the change from a traditional-style bistro-carvery to specialising in American-style BBQ and smoked meats it was a whole new learning curve. “For 20 years we ran it as an Australian-style restaurant,” says Stephen. “By 2015, there were a lot more restaurants around, the Kitchens in Robina opened, there was a plethora of take aways,” says Stephen. “Our problem was differentiation. There were only a few people on the Coast doing wood-fired BBQ. I’d lived in the States in Seattle, and in north-west America BBQ is king.”

They imported two Yoder, hand-made BBQs from the US and a Bradley smoker from Canada and set about the complex art of learning to cook with them. “It took six months to learn how to cook with them. Burning wood, you haven’t got any temperature control, it’s all hand feel,” says Stephen. They had to find butchers who could supply the cuts of meat they needed and convince a parochial clientele to come with them on their new food journey.

“We opened in June 2016, and we got some flack. People were complaining. Mudgeeraba is very parochial, you’re talking to people who ride horses in from the hinterland,” says Stephen. “But by losing some business we gained more.” And they adapted some of their old favourites to the new style of cooking. “The Barbi Palmy is the third best-selling item on the menu,” he says.

While the future remains uncertain, there are business lessons aplenty from the Woodchopper Inn’s determination to keep the doors open. “Being genuine in your product is key. Our wood-fired BBQ is right in the middle of the place so people know where the meat is coming from.” They’ve focussed on quality and service and knowing their customers.

And whenever they can throw open the doors to sit-down customers again, they’ll be ready. “We’re a 120-seater so we could still accommodate 60 diners and maintain social distancing,” says Stephen.

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