I'm reading
Shannon and Mo lead with love
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Shannon and Mo lead with love
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Shannon and Mo lead with love
Pass it on
Pass it on
Conversations
12 April 2018

Shannon and Mo lead with love

Interview by Tegan Sullivan
Photography by Tegan Sullivan

Tegan on meeting Shannon and Mo...

It is a Friday afternoon in Melbourne. On a quiet Fitzroy street, small crowds of people emerge from a nondescript building to sit on the curb or lean against walls, their attention focused entirely on the treasures in their hands. Dogs look up longingly, waiting for a tasty morsel to fall from the black and white paper wrappings.

I step inside the building and take in my surroundings. The Smiths are playing through the speakers. The place is filled with people, and a U-shaped line has formed from the doorway to the counter, via shelves stocked with corn chips, hot sauce, marshmallows and an array of colourful sweets. Despite the queue, everyone seems to be in a great mood, chatting, laughing, and patting the dogs who are encouraged to join in on the fun. This is Smith & Deli, and it is the place to be.

I have been here more times than I can count. I’ve been here enough times for the staff to comment on my new hairstyle, and know which sandwich I like best. This time, however, the owner knows my name, and I am overcome with excitement. “Tegan! Hey!” The woman with peach-coloured hair and a wide, genuine smile is Mo Wyse, co-founder and hospitality mastermind.

She welcomes me into the kitchen for an tour. I see cheeses, deli meats, fresh loaves of sourdough, and tray upon tray of perfect croissants ready for the oven. The genius behind all of this food—Shannon Martinez—arrives as I am taking photos. She has been cooking all day, playing with a recipe for blood sausage.

Oh, and there’s one more thing you should know: everything they do is completely vegan, though they estimate that only 20 percent of their customers are. The rest just appreciate really good food and great service.

We walk over the road to Smith & Daughters—the restaurant that started it all in 2014—and chat for over an hour as the staff prepare for another busy night. With a second book in the works, collaborations all over the country, two booming businesses and Shannon’s “Three pots on the stove,” to look after, they might be frantic, but their love for what they do shines through in our conversation.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

TEGAN SULLIVAN: I think your story is amazing, quitting your day jobs and starting this incredible business. And I love the talk you did for Creative Mornings on “work”.

MO WYSE: That was the very first presentation we did together. I think people loved it because they ultimately just want to know your stories. Everyone knows to work hard, especially freelancers, creatives, or people who actually genuinely love what they do, but it is interesting to hear where other people have come from and what outside-of-the-box things they’ve done. We’ve done so many things that are not kosher or traditional, and it’s clearly worked, but we did not start this business by a book.

SHANNON MARTINEZ: It was our own book. We spent a lot of time before we opened getting together and hanging out, food testing, talking about what it was going to become, and I think we wrote our own book in terms of taking all the things we hated in previous jobs, and making sure that when it was our turn it would be different. Learning from shitty bosses—or great bosses—and not pretending that we knew everything. And something I’ve become more and more aware of lately, is that being a self-funded restaurant that is as busy as we are is really quite rare. We don’t have any investors, it’s just Mo and I. We found ways of doing whatever we could, calling friends because we needed it to happen, but we didn’t want the input of some big money behind us being the puppeteer. And we’re pretty handy at coming up with ways to make things look more impressive than they really are, so we can make it work. Like these chairs—back then we couldn’t afford $400 per chair for a 90-seater restaurant. So we sat here ’til midnight colouring in all the scratches with Sharpies.

And people are still coming in droves!

S: That’s the thing! I think so much focus is on the design of restaurants and their aesthetic, and they’ve lost focus of the fact that you’re still a restaurant, and just by throwing flowers on the plate doesn’t mean that your food’s good.

M: People do come to us and they ask “What’s the formula?” and it’s this—everything has to be on point. It has to be a perfect storm.

S: And paying someone else to design a space for you that you basically live in. You walk in here and you can tell that this is our vibe. Spending $30 million on a fit out is mental! I’d rather put the effort and the focus into the food and put it on a little IKEA board that we’ve scrubbed the logo off if it means that we can focus on what’s really important to us.

M: And not only did we do it our way, but we were really open and receptive to learning as we went, hearing things from our staff and constantly making refinements.

You guys listen to your staff—that shouldn’t be a revelation but it really is.

M: Yeah, we have really amazing staff that are constantly suggesting ways to make things better.

Do you think what the customer sees is a reflection of how the staff are when the doors are closed?

S: I think at first, problems came up because they didn’t know that they could come and talk to us and voice their opinions, and we had this one meeting and something came up and we said, “Well let’s just hire someone extra, if you’re too stressed, let’s get someone else to come and help,” and they were like “Really?” So once it was established that that’s the kind of work environment we encourage, it’s all been good. Also, people are so eager to please, it can lead to them sometimes taking on too much, so we’ve figured out ways to lighten their load.

M: Even if they love it, there is a fine line and burnout’s real. I think one thing that’s unique is everyone has that sense of “We’re a team,” and there is a sense of accomplishment when we’ve gotten through a really hard, hot, crazy day. And I feel like any bitching that happens is all really light and fun and everyone laughs it off together. And Shannon’s never had the typical kitchen environment, so that’s one thing that permeates through the whole business. Happy kitchen, loud music, no yelling.

If you’ve got a happy kitchen you’ve got a happy restaurant.

I actually wanted to ask about that because I read somewhere that you’ve worked in kitchens where they have this typical “grab-arse” culture…

S: Oh yeah. That’s just kitchens in general. That’s 95 percent of kitchens.

So I’m curious to hear—behind the scenes—how you’re fostering that sense of zero tolerance.

S: My first proper experience in a commercial kitchen was when I was 15. People like to think that it’s gotten a lot easier for women in kitchens but it hasn’t, and you just have to look at who wins awards and who judges them—they’re all men. I got asked to do a cooking demo sponsored by a big company, and the pitch at the start was “We really want to push women chef talent, this is a really positive thing,” and I was like “Fuck yes!” And she said “That’s why we came to you, we’re gonna put you in the headlining spot on a Friday night, ticketed event,” and they want me to do it for free, and they want me to pay for all the food for the demo! And it’s like, is that why you asked women to do it, because they have less opportunities than men so they’re more likely to do things for free?

They assume you’re more desperate.

S: Yeah! I’m not after exposure here, you know? This is my career, this is what we do for a living.

You’ve got two booming businesses.

S: Yeah! It’s like this radio interview we did this week where one of the questions they asked us was if we were married. What has that got to do with the food or the book?

M: And they called Shannon “Sharon” and they assumed that I was a man. It was so brutal.

S: And just having that divide, you know. Like Gourmet Traveller’s Top 10—all male. Top 50—all male. It’s fucking boring. And there are so many good female chefs around now. And in the competition side, I find women in kitchens are generally less competitive than men.

Why do you think that is?

S: Because men are competitive. Women are more interested in growing the business and being part of a team, as opposed to being the peacock in the kitchen who fluffs his feathers, you know. I find our kitchens work so well because it’s such a team effort and no one’s trying to one-up anyone else.

S: It’s nearly four years since we opened and since then, so many vegetarian and vegan businesses have opened. I encourage it more and more. For me, I need that kick in the arse, to step it up. I want us to continue being at the top of our game, whether that’s expanding the way we serve food or the spaces that we create or whatever we do. Something most people don’t understand is that we are providing great experiences for people who have had a bad experience with vegan food, and it’s everything they didn’t think vegan food could be. It’s filling, it’s full of flavour.

And it doesn’t feel like you’re missing something. So many people assume that a vegan has to take everything away and all they’re left with is a piece of lettuce.

M: That is the problem though, there are still a lot of people out there just putting lettuce on a plate. Think about any wedding you’ve been to, where even if they’ve been briefed in advance, they’ll realise there’s feta in the salad, and they scrape the feta out so you have, like, a piece of lettuce with feta residue. [Laughs] And the people at the table just go “Oh, vegan diet huh?”

S: It’s a joke.

M: And then they’ll never want to have a vegan meal because that’s their one experience. I actually feel like it’s a great selling point for us for non-vegans to say that our chef’s not vegan. To say, this is how I grew up making blood sausage with my grandma, and this is the exact same thing but without animals.

S: It’s a challenge! It takes the right person though. Staffing the kitchen here is hard because you have to remove ego. And I get it, you’ve dedicated your whole life to cooking and you know how to cook. That confidence is great, but if you come into my kitchen and I ask you to make an aioli but you’re not allowed to use eggs and all of a sudden they’re like “Uhhhh.” It’s the right sort of person who’s excited by that challenge.

Earlier this year we had a pretty amazing, beloved industry chef commit suicide, and it’s raised a lot of awareness about mental health in this industry. Our job is so intense. It’s not the sort of job where you can sit down or break it up. It is manic all the time and you are constantly being pushed.

S: That stuff is definitely changing now, but I implemented that change a long time ago. I didn’t want that to happen anymore. The aggression in kitchens, the violence, the mental abuse which is so common. Imagine working at Supre and your manager just grabs a frying pan and smacks you across the head.

Have you actually seen stuff like that?

S: Oh yeah! Yeah. My god, and worse. People have gone to hospital from what the head chefs have done with them, you know. The mental abuse, being put down in front of a team of 20 people, these were all things in my mind where I was like, Alright, when it’s my turn, when I’ve got my kitchen, none of this shit’s happening, there will be respect for everyone. By no means does that mean that they get away with being arseholes or with not working, just the approach on how that gets handled is completely different. There’s no yelling in front of the staff, no putting people down. If there’s an issue they get pulled aside, or at the end of the night we sit down at the bar and get a drink. They definitely know when they’ve fucked up. By screaming at a staff member or throwing something at them, the entire staff seizes up and then the entire flow is fucked for the whole night. So I don’t see any point in doing it.

And also they lose respect for the head chef.

S: They lose respect for themselves. Because in this job, you’re working to impress people, that’s why we do what we do. We’re here to give people a really good time, so the pressure’s already on them to be as good as possible, so when the chef tells them they’re a piece of shit and they’re fucking up their team, it’s not a good way to go about it. My brother said something that’s always stuck with me, which is it’s so much better to be respected than to be feared. I wouldn’t want anyone to be so scared that they couldn’t talk to me about something. People like coming to work here, and I’ve had staff who have been with me for eight years now which is so rare. Kitchens have a high turnover, so I’ve been really lucky.

Do you find that, as female leaders, your assertiveness can be taken as bitchiness?

Both: Oh yeah.

M: I worked with too many female TV producers who felt like they had to be men, and have intrinsically male qualities in order to be commanding presences, and I hated it. Being misogynistic as a female is probably the worst thing you can do, putting other women down to feel better about yourself or to feel like you’re achieving an end goal. Watching them scratch their proverbial nuts, it was disgusting. And the way that they spoke, you know, there’s a way to be commanding and forceful and set goals and have expectations.

S: My personality is the same sitting here with you as it is in the kitchen. If something’s wrong it’s wrong, and if it’s great I’ll make sure I tell you that you’re fucking awesome. It just happens a bit faster and louder in the kitchen. But I treat people the same in whatever space I’m in. And hopefully when my sous and my head chefs open their own places they take—if anything—lessons on how a business can be run. For a lot of these chefs this is the first female-led kitchen they’ve been in. Someone told me when they did a trial that they didn’t think kitchens like this existed, and that’s awesome. Above the food, above everything, that is more important. Instilling that in another female, and hopefully more women will get in the kitchen because they’re not feeling threatened or torn to pieces every night and sexually harassed. The #metoo campaign. Facebook wouldn’t let me write enough words to explain what has happened in this industry.

M: I feel like this industry wrote the book for a lot of these things. It is actually worked into the policies of most places. Even major restaurants that exist in Melbourne today have specific guidelines for dress code and interacting with customers that provide a #metoo environment. Someone lifts up your skirt, here’s what you do. You’re literally not allowed to report it.

We’ve had a lot of really great things happen in the business but one of the moments that Shannon and I were most proud of was when we fired a male chef for being misogynistic to our staff.

He was making extreme comments that were just a part of his rhetoric. He saw nothing wrong with what he was saying, and it was daily, and it was to every single female staff member.

S: Including me.

M: Including me. And we were comparing notes one day and we were like, “Did he really just say this to you?” It felt like, this was exactly what we were supposed to be doing. It was a really defiant moment and it explained what we set out to do. So many positive things happen on the floor with customers, but that moment, where we could set the example for everybody else.

S: We have no favouritism, whether it be for customers or our staff. If you act like a dickhead and you think you can get away with it then there’s the door. That will come above profit. Our staff need to feel safe.

In an industry that is so crazy, do you ever stop? Do you find it hard to stop?

S: For me, because food is all I think about, it never stops, but it’s really relaxing for me when I do it at home. So while I’m always doing the same thing, it’s a very different vibe. My mum and I had an argument on the phone, because I’m going up there for Christmas, she goes “You’re not allowed to cook. Three days, come up, if I have to I’ll chain you to that chair outside so you sit in the sun and relax.” Not being able to cook for three days is not relaxing to me! They see it as tunnel vision but to me it’s passion. It’s what I love to do. So when I come to your house for Christmas, I want to go to the farmers market and take my time, and then hang out and cook really slowly. That is downtime for me.

M: One of the only holidays Shannon took since we opened the business was a trip to Hawaii, and she was dying because she couldn’t cook, but she bought every single cookbook that she didn’t already have at Barnes and Noble and sat by the pool with post it notes.

S: I’ve had two proper holidays in ten years, and I went to Thailand and I came back ten days early because I was losing my mind, I was so bored. I’d been working heaps at this point and I thought “I’ll try one of these by the pool holidays!” you know just lounging around on an island, and it’s beautiful, and blah.

[Laughs]

S: And I went there, and lost my mind, and ended up cooking in the hotel kitchen for free. After two days of helping them out they were like okay, thanks for your help, go enjoy your holiday. And then I called mum and got her to help me change my flights, and then I just came back to work.

M: Shannon’s really healthy, she has balance, but I don’t. I know burnout’s real. But my ‘work mode’ never changed my whole life, and I definitely got it from my parents. I saw them work seven days a week. But before this I was doing the same amount of work for people who didn’t acknowledge or appreciate me, and that’s where Shannon and I really connected. But when we got into this, I feel like the standard just got higher.

So, what’s next?

S: Lots of collaborations and expanding our audience. We were at the Adelaide Beer and BBQ Festival this year. I prepped food in Melbourne and brought it over in big refrigerated boxes, and in the first night we sold out of three days worth of food. We were insanely busy. We’d never been to Adelaide before and vegans there aren’t really well catered for.

M: And either side of her were these meat smokers, and they’re just looking at her going, “Sorry, did you just put up another ‘sold out’ sign? What?”

S: I had to go out at eight in the morning and run around trying to find products to remake things, and I’d remake them and within two hours it would all be sold again. So then I’d just end up helping the other chefs in their stalls. “Well I’m sold out boys, you want me to help you out?” [Laughs] So that was awesome!

That’s the dream!

S: That is the dream! So more of that please.

Give them options and they will come. Vegans are hungry people.

M: And people are curious, not just vegans.

S: The amount of people that were like, “Vegan brisket, are you kidding? Alright, give us a go.” I actually had to stop saying yes to people that weren’t vegan at one point because I wanted to keep some for the vegans.

Tegan Sullivan

Tegan is a Dumbo Feather reader from way back with a love for spreadsheets and to-do lists. She looks after our subscribers and keeps the stationery cupboard well-stocked. She also writes, dabbles in photography and surrounds herself with cats.

Photography by Tegan Sullivan

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.