Flat White

George Calombaris: now all too many of those underpaid workers will also soon be unemployed

11 February 2020

11:08 AM

11 February 2020

11:08 AM

I love eating out. I love good food, but I hate food wankery. I hate food fads. I hate the cult of the celebrity chef. I hate My Kitchen Rules. I hate Masterchef. I hate waiting staff that are too cool for school.

Yet, despite all that, I also hate what is happening to George Calombaris. If there was ever a case of a good old irrational pile on, this is it. It’s not about the fickle fads of the restaurant trade. It speaks volumes about how fickle and faddy we’ve become.

The Australian’s John Lethlean is more than a food critic. He writes about more than restaurants. He covers the whole damned industry paddock to plate, observing its feats, fads and foibles with a piercing eye — and his analysis of the Calombaris collapse today should be essential reading:

For Melbourne chef-cum-restaurant entrepreneur George Calombaris, it’s been a case of the harder they come, the harder they fall. George and his backers at MAdE Establishment have been in rapid expansion mode for the past five years, a lot of it allied to the unlikely celebrity of a minor shareholder, a loveable Greek kid who has grown up on our television screens to become almost omnipresent since that first episode of MasterChef plucked him from relative obscurity in 2009.

Ten years later, it seemed all flash cars and Toorak mansions for George, and a host of businesses came under the banner of “The George Calombaris Empire.” But a business built around celebrity is a vulnerable one, as Monday’s news proved, and George has long since ceded control of “his” empire…

The popular consensus is that MAdE’s woes relate to the chef’s fall from grace. Are those woes because of dud numbers through the doors as a result of the golden boy losing his lustre, deserved or not?

Maybe it’s just another case of a restaurant group in trouble for a matrix of business reasons to do with costs exceeding revenues. One that just happens to have built itself around the star-power of Calombaris…

Answers will trickle out in the weeks ahead as administrators pull apart the complex MAdE Establishment – a company of which Calombaris owns less than 20 per cent – and report to creditors. It may simply be another case of too big, too soon in a fickle retail business where labour and the infamously complex industrial relations framework it operates in can mean the difference between profit and loss very quickly.

Or will this go down as on the great fall-guy stories of all time? One in which the company screwed up – on a number of levels including the wages underpayment issue – but with such a recognisable celebrity figurehead to be flayed, it was too easy for the rank and file of the industry to pile on, with consumers following in lock-step.

Irresistible celebrity clickbait.

Personally, I doubt George Calombaris knew to the full extent or detail what was going on in head office with individual staff payments. He was out there, doing what he does. Television, endorsements, media commitments, books, celebrity gossip columns, spats at the soccer. Occasionally, even, cooking.

Not payroll.

But when it hit the fan, it was Calombaris who was flayed in public, not the other directors of MAdE. George was an easy and obvious target…

Lethlean forgot one important issue. Calombaris was not only “was an easy and obvious target”. He was wearing a great big target on his back since he warned in 2012 about the impact of penalty rates on the hospitality industry. The underpayment scandal involving the businesses that traded off his name was reprehensible, but the union movement stoked up the heat and directed its full force at Calombaris personally given those remarks, happily aided and abetted by the anti-business business correspondents at the ABC and SMAge; the Age in particular, given that Melbourne is Calombaris’ home town.

Now all too many of those workers who were underpaid are going to lose their jobs as well. Well done, unions. Well done, media. Well done, boycotters.

Forget about food fads. This is the age of virtue signalling and the Twitter pile-on; both vile, fickle fads themselves.

We saw last month how they can cost lives. Now we’re seeing how they can cost livelihoods as well.

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