Georgia left her career in corporate litigation to open a healthy food chain in Melbourne after consistently feeling frustrated with the lack of healthy food options at lunchtimes in the city.
We had the pleasure of meeting with Georgia to learn more about what was involved in starting her now successful eating chain and how she managed having children through the process.
“The first year of starting the business was the most challenging year of my life and I’ve had two kids since then, so that’s a big call!”
“Do it because you’ve got a passion and you believe in an idea. You want to do something you love. Because being your own boss is the hardest thing you will ever do.”
From birth, it seems some people have their futures mapped out for them. With Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli as her parents, Liza Minnelli was always destined to be an entertainer and it was no surprise when George W Bush became 43rd President of the United States, following in the footsteps of his father, George Bush Snr.
So was this the case for proud foodie and owner of healthy eating chain Famish’d, Georgia Samuel?
Not in the least.
“I grew up eating chops and schnitzel,” she says with an apologetic smile. “Pretty much every night with the occasional sweetcorn…”
Her passion for food and nutrition didn’t really kick in until she met her husband, Adam. He’s a banker, though Samuel thinks he’s missed his calling. “He’s the best dinner cook in the world. He should have become a chef...”
Her passion was further fuelled by her three and a half years working in corporate litigation at what was then known as Freehills. It was nothing to do with the job, of course, merely the increasing frustration she experienced when trying to find healthy food at lunchtimes in the city. “I would bring my big hearty, protein filled salads to work every day. I’d sit there eating at my desk and often think, ‘Why has someone not thought of this? It’s so obvious this is what people want.’ People would come up to me at my desk and say, ‘What is in your salad? I want to make that’.”
The idea took a couple of years to germinate, however. When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, Samuel and her husband took a break from their busy work lives and travelled around South America for five months. While she was over there, she started conceptualising, brainstorming business names and considering what it might look like. “It was originally going to be Ripe, but that was taken, which I’m quite happy about now.”
Shortly before she was due to return to Freehills, she made the big decision, phoned her boss, Damian Grave, and informed him she wasn’t coming back as she was going to pursue her business idea. She opened the first Famish’d in Little Collins Street in Melbourne’s CBD in May 2010.
It wasn’t all plain sailing from day one, she recalls. “One of the biggest challenges I faced was that everyone wanted a sandwich… ‘I’ll have an egg and lettuce sandwich, thanks’… ‘We don’t do sandwiches’… ‘See you later’.”
She began to doubt her business model, which was firmly focused on ‘build your own’ healthy salads from an extensive range of ingredients, with daily soup specials, baked potatoes and great coffee, courtesy of a partnership with Salvatore Malatesta from St Ali. But husband Adam, ever the staunch and supportive partner, convinced her not to deviate from her plans. “You’ve got a concept,” he told her. “If the concept doesn’t work, you’ll sell up, you’ll get out and you’ll go back to corporate, but you’re not going to become another café that serves a bit of everything, to anyone. Stick to what you set out to do. Make your own salad bar, with healthy, delicious, filling food.”
It was hard, she recalls. “The first year of starting the business was the most challenging year of my life and I’ve had two kids since then, so that’s a big call!” she says. She had a tendency to micromanage. “If it wasn’t the way I wanted, it wasn’t good enough.” This only changed, she says, when her children arrived – Milla, now four and Jasper who is just a few months old. Necessity saw her relax her grip on the reins a little. “You have to accept that you need to step back and support people and give them responsibility,” she says. “And let them grow. Let them make mistakes. Because if they don’t stuff it up, they’re never going to learn.”
That philosophy has to be working for her as, despite hospitality being notorious for its high churn rate, Samuel notes proudly that all of her senior staff have been with her for years, and her operations manager, Lauren Hogan “has been with me since day dot”.
Hospitality is very different to working for a global law firm like Herbert Smith Freehills, but she does credit her strong negotiation skills to her former career with the firm. These have stood her in good stead for her business, she says. “I really learned how to negotiate,” she adds, citing her most recent lease negotiation for the fourth Famish’d outlet in St Kilda Road. “The landlord there turned to me after I’d sat down with him and said, ‘I’ve never had a negotiator as strong as you.’ We made a deal, and he said, ‘You’re probably the youngest I’ve dealt with, but you’re the strongest’.”
There’s also a big difference between the relative safety of working for a vast established firm and being your own boss, but Samuel emphasises that anybody going into business just to be in control of their own life and clock is heading for trouble. “I’ll say to anybody who is thinking about starting their own business, don’t do it if that’s your reason. Do it because you’ve got a passion and you believe in an idea. You want to do something you love. Because being your own boss is the hardest thing you will ever do.”
So what keeps her going? “It really comes down to loving your product,” she says simply. “Loving what you’re actually setting out to do… I can sit here and do this interview because I love Famish’d. I love everything we offer. I know that there are queues every single lunchtime, we turn over thousands of customers a day among the four stores, because the product’s good.”