Recently, I spent some time in Split, Croatia which is a must visit destination in itself which I’m sure I’ll cover in a different post. For now, I want to recommend a place to eat which yes, for those who know me well will be a shock. It is rare for me to even remember what I’ve eaten never mind where, however when you find somewhere which offers great food (even vegetarian and vegan) and even better service, then it is certainly worth a recommendation. When I decided to interview Geoff, I was already preparing to move on to Dubrovnik so this interview took place over emails back and forth. I hope you enjoy it and also if you are fortunate to ever be in Split then please check out the Fig restaurant as I know you won’t be disappointed.
You mentioned you had been in Croatia for 7 years, what made you come here and stay?
I was burned out after working on private yachts and I met my business partner Rob in Nice, France while staying at the first hostel I’d ever stayed in. He had a dream of opening a hostel somewhere in Europe and I loved the idea. He did the hard work of travelling throughout Europe to find the right place while I continued working on boats. Eventually we came with a big group of friends to Hvar (he is Croatian by birth but grew up in Melbourne) and we fell in love with the place. It was perfect. We decided that year to open a hostel in Hvar. We saved up money over the next couple of years and with a lot of hard work from Rob and a little luck we found the perfect spot for our hostel, renting it from a wonderful Croatian family.
When we met you mentioned another restaurant on Hvar, can you tell me more about that?
After a couple of years we found an opportunity to open a restaurant in Hvar. With my background as a chef on boats and my partner’s business know-how we felt like we could create something special, ‘something different’, from all the places serving pizza, pasta and fish. We opened the place in Hvar being mindful of the budgets we had seen from people in the hostel while focusing on quality, local ingredients that had an international flair.
How long has the restaurant in Split been open? How did it come about? Our new location has been open for two months. We met some locals who had been running restaurants in Split for a long time and had a location in the centre of the Palace. We spoke to them about our concept and they decided it might be a good fit for the location.
It’s set in a great location, how long did it take to find somewhere you wanted to open a restaurant? We were lucky. We had thought about opening a place in Split for a while but this one just fell in our lap. Initially we were worried that our comfort cuisine style wouldn’t fit the incredible location. That maybe serving burritos in a UNESCO heritage site would seem a little strange. After being open for a few days we realized our concerns were unjustified. Our little restaurant has an intimate feel away from the hustle of the waterfront restaurants and is a great compliment to the type of food we serve. We’d like our guests to feel special in every way – like they are friends who get the special treatment. The location just adds to that feeling.
What do you like about running a restaurant? I think we are driven to make people happy. Food is my way to share with people. To see them excited about the same things we are excited about. Every day is a new day to make new friends and see people happy about their experience. I know that might sound a little hokey but getting to talk to people from all over the world every day, hear their stories and see a smile on their face from the food – it makes my day. We have been so lucky to have incredible guests. They make the long hours and hard work worth it.
How do you recruit your team? What qualities do you look for? I’ve heard that you should hire what you can’t train. We’ve taken that idea and tried to form teams of people who are kind and smart. You can teach a lot but you can’t teach someone to be a hard worker or a nice person. We look for people who hold our own ethics about service and food. We’ve been really lucky in that we’ve got an incredibly diverse team from all over the world. We speak a combined total of eight languages and come from diverse backgrounds. Most of our employees are from referrals from other employees. That works for us because the new employee has someone they know immediately and feel comfortable with.
How does the time you spent in Asia influence you now in life and in business? I’m not sure how to answer that. There are the obvious gifts of perception that travel allows but outside of that and speaking of real value to the business I’d say that we have found a great following with Korean guests because of my background in the language. Asian culture is so diverse that I don’t think I could say that I have a good understanding of it all but there a some commonalities that seem easier when dealing with our Asian customers. That being said… it’s really fun to be able to be blow Koreans’ minds once in a while when they have a waiter in the middle of Croatia who speaks their language.
There is a great menu available, I was particularly impressed by the vegan and vegetarian options. Was that a conscious decision to provide such a variety as that isn’t the case in most places?
We decided to make a menu that was 70% vegetarian but in the process I unintentionally made it 90% vegetarian. I didn’t even notice in the beginning until I had to print the menu with the symbols indicating vegetarian and vegan dishes. We know most guests are not vegetarian and we still cater to them but I think a lot of guests haven’t really noticed. The food ‘happens’ to be vegetarian and a lot of our guests just order what sounds good to them. We value eating less meat and if we can make a few converts along the way then great!
What have been the high points of opening the restaurant?
The high point of opening our first restaurant was the night I saw every table full and people waiting to get a table. I’d envisioned it before we even opened. A restaurant full of happy guests – the sound, the vibe. Then one night it happened and it continued to happen. It gave me chills. It makes me really happy to see so many people happy because of what our team has worked so hard on.
Is this where you expected your life to take you?
Haha. No. If someone had said to me ten years ago that I’d be a restaurant owner in Eastern Europe… well that’s crazy of course. Life is strange, things never end up how you think they will. We’ve worked hard but we’ve also been lucky. We’ve made mistakes and made good decisions. In the end you can’t just work hard or have good ideas or be lucky – it takes a serendipitous blend of all of them and more. I’m very grateful for all those little things that have gotten us to where we are.
Where can you be found on social media/ website etc?
You can find us at figrestaurants.com and on most social media.