Uber Eats nearly destroyed Shane Delia’s business, but now the chef and TV personality is set to ramp up his reliance on the food delivery service, opening seven more restaurants.
Delia, 38, made his name with his Middle Eastern fine dining restaurant Maha in Melbourne’s central business district but two years ago he decided to tap into the move towards more casual dining by opening kebab store Biggie Smalls.
“The hype was you open and just start counting the cash, the reality is that it is a hard business with very small margins,” he says. “At the same time we opened Biggie Smalls Uber Eats launched and that changed the dining landscape tenfold. The first 12 months were unbelievably hard.”
The food delivery market rose by 30 per cent in 2017 and is forecast to rise from about $1.5 billion in 2017 to $4.2 billion by 2025, according to a Morgan Stanley report published in January.
Delia says Uber Eats and other delivery services such as Deliveroo and Foodora have forced restaurants to change.
“Fifty per cent of your revenue goes out the back door, we have had to be flexible and have had to be forward thinking otherwise we will go the way of the taxi driver,” he says. “I can’t have that, I can’t fail. You have to try and find a way to be better and smarter. This is the hustle. I have always been a hustler.”
Delia grew up hustling in Melbourne’s western suburbs the son of Maltese immigrant parents. He quit school at 16 to train to become a chef and now owns Maha alongside four Biggie Small stores.
He employs more than 100 staff and Fairfax estimates the business turns over about $15 million but Delia is not resting on his laurels.
“I am scared of the future,” he says. “I’m scared but it drives me to get better.”
While some restaurateurs are wary of the influence of delivery companies on the restaurant industry, Delia is ramping up his reliance on his partners.
He operates two brick and mortar Biggie Small stores and two dark stores, known as “Uber exclusive stores”, which are online only, and this is where Delia wants to build his business.
“By the end of the year there will be another seven of those,” he says. “By the end of 2018 there will be nowhere in the Melbourne Uber reach that you can’t order Biggie Smalls.”Delia is contemplating focusing solely on Uber Eats and abandoning the other food delivery companies.”Currently we are using everyone but I think moving froward you can’t play the field forever, eventually you have to choose one and marry it,” he says. “We have had a great relationship with Uber Eats and moving forward I think they are the winning horse and I want to be in the jockey seat.”
‘I learnt a hell of a lot’
It’s been a hard graft for Delia to get to where he is today but he gives a lot of credit to his wife Maha, who he met while heading up the kitchen at Chateau Yering in the Yarra Valley.
”I realised I was not happy anymore,” Delia says. “Mentally I was not in a great space, I’ve always had a bit of attention deficit disorder and I did go through a stage where it was pretty bad. After proposing to [Maha] I decided I had to make a change, either leave the career or do something to be the husband that was expected of me and to be around more.”
After leaving Chateau Yering, Delia caught up with his old friend George Calombaris, who he had completed an apprenticeship with.
Delia agreed to open a restaurant with Calombaris and his partners Made Establishment and that restaurant was Maha.
“To be honest I didn’t know his partners, I knew him,” says Delia. “I don’t just trust everyone I meet with my life savings. If someone is my friend and I trust them I assume they have my best interests at heart. We went into the business and I learnt a hell of a lot it turned me from a chef to a prospectful restaurateur. I learnt a lot about restaurants, friends, and pressures and how to deal with it and not deal with it.”
Going it alone
After five years in business together with Maha, Delia bought out Made Establishment in 2013.
When asked if this caused a rift with Calombaris, Delia is sanguine.
“There was never any argument and there was never any bad blood,” he says. “We were the best of friends and when you are in business together, that’s a hard space. It was the same fuel and drive that we built on in the past but this time it caused a little fracture. It wasn’t a falling out, we decided it was time to go our separate ways.”
Calombaris declined to comment for this article.
For the first time, Delia truly had ownership and control of his own restaurant.
“It was scary but it was liberating too,” he says. “I felt like I should be ready to take on the next step and I had something to prove to myself that I had created it and I wasn’t just riding on the coat tails of others, but at the same time you do doubt yourself. I think anyone high achieving always doubts themselves.
“Delia says going it alone was tough.
“When I came out of that partnership I was in a really bad position mentally and emotionally,” he says. “Our business has been consistent and stable for a great number of years so the financial pressure of not paying bills has not really been an issue. But when you are the primary investor and it is all on you and you go to bed at night with millions of dollars at risk it is stressful. I have two young kids and a wife. That pressure also fuels me, that combined with untreated mental illnesses is a cocktail for disaster and it almost broke me and I’m lucky I have a wife who stuck by me through that process.”
Delia says since then he has gone through a “total transformation” mentally and emotionally.
“The lows ground you and form who you are, and how you recover from that is a true test,” he says. “I have never considered myself one of the country’s best cooks, I consider myself a good business man who tries to do things right.”
This year Delia is celebrating Maha’s tenth year in business with a residency at Melbourne’s Hotel Windsor as he renovates the restaurant.
But despite his focus on food delivery, Delia thinks there is still a place for fine dining restaurants like Maha.
The restaurant makes up about 50 per cent of his business’ revenue.
“At the end of the day there are restaurants in the upper echelon doing amazing stuff and I don’t think Uber Eats or others will impact that premium market,” he says. “People will want a premium experience and you can’t have that in a takeaway bag at home.”
Originally published by The Sydney Morning Herald on 8 February 2018. Written by Cara Waters.