Eat & Drink

EXP. Restaurant

Unpacking the evolution of this Hunter Valley dining institution

Proudly sponsored by Square

Over the coming months, we’ll be checking in with some of our region's most talented – a Hunter Valley chef at the top of their game, the local queen of aesthetic beauty, our city's go-to cheery artist and illustrator, and mother-daughter floral duo – to hear about how they marry together their core passions whilst successfully running a small business.

First up is Frank Fawkner, the man behind Pokolbin’s unique dining institution that is Fawk Foods Kitchen & Bakery by day, and EXP. Restaurant by night. 

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Let’s take a trip down memory lane. How did you become a chef and what inspired you to do so?

My first job at the age of 15 was at a cafe in Broke. I really enjoyed it, and they told me that I was good. I started as a kitchen hand and before I knew it, I was basically running the kitchen.

That gave me a lot of confidence and I really enjoyed that environment. Having such great praise when you’re that young helps you consider something as a serious career.

Everywhere I have worked over the years I have enjoyed, but I originally thought I was going to be a hotel chef. My wife Emma and I then moved to London for a year, and I just knew that restaurants were where I needed to be. After our time there, I knew I wanted to open my own restaurant.

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You launched EXP. Restaurant in 2015 before re-launching at Pokolbin Village in 2020, and introducing Fawk Foods Kitchen & Bakery in 2018 – can you share with us the story of your business’ growth and overall journey?

I launched EXP. in 2015 at Oakvale Winery and we would do both lunches and dinner with an al a carte menu. I had always wanted to do a tasting menu. It was a great launchpad and awesome first five years in business.

In 2018, we had an opportunity in the Pokolbin Village to open up a bakery and cafe space and that’s when we launched Fawk Foods Kitchen & Bakery.

It got to a point where it was hard spreading myself and finding the time to be at both venues, so we decided to merge the two businesses under one roof.

Since 2020, we’ve made the most of the space and our lease, and our staff which makes it a lot easier to monitor and manage the entire business. As well as being able to really put our own stamp on the space and have our say on the way we want to run everything.

Just doing dinners and a tasting menu has been the progressional goal since the start. To deliver a unique experience that is one of a kind and represents the region, and by having this space we’ve been able to do that.

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As a naturally creative individual, how have you dealt with the technical side of running a business? 

Over the years, I found that a lot of my friends were using Square to power their businesses. The features that Square offer were what enticed me over to work with them and we have been doing so since August last year.

In a business sense, I knew that Square would help us reduce some of our margins as well as save us a lot of time, which in turn helps us operate overall as a business.

All their features with stocktake, ordering systems, and the layout of everything is very simplified and everything talks to each other well. Those few things alongside their pricing was a no-brainer for us.

Some of their back of house services were amazing as well. Usually, you might work with the point-of-sale business as well as the merchant terminal; two separate entities. But with Square, it’s just one; they’re the merchant and point of sale which makes it a lot easier to communicate.

Technically speaking, what elements of Square have helped level-up your business offering?

The QR code system for Fawk Food Kitchen & Bakery was one of the biggest ones for us. As a cafe, it’s very labour intensive. We would have lots of staff taking orders and entering those orders in. Now, we have all our menu on the QR code which sits on the table allowing our diners to order direct from the table.

We’ve got a few changes moving forward with Fawk Foods Kitchen & Bakery, where we will be leaning more so into the bakery, and I know that changing that offering with Square will be an easy one.

There will be a few of the EXP. items available to buy through that QR code menu including our bread and butter, and maybe some charcuterie packs and other goodies. Additionally, we’ve got Gareth from Covered in Crumbs on board. 

Wait, does this mean that Covered in Crumbs is back? 

Unofficially, yes! He’s working on bringing some of his signature items to the menu and I see that as a huge plus for us – he’s got some amazing products and we want to showcase that. We’re hoping to launch this by late August or early September.

On the back house side of things, it’s made it a lot easier for us to bring in our own products. The detail of data on a daily and weekly basis makes it easier when preparing for future weeks. Overall, since working with Square, our whole business has run a lot smoother. 

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How would you describe the EXP. Restaurant approach to dining and what makes it different from a traditional restaurant experience?

EXP. offers a unique dining experience that is multi-faceted on everything. It’s about the overall experience; not just the food, the wine, but down to the smaller details like our tables that are all handmade, our plates and our cutlery.

Offering all these handmade things as well as our open kitchen offers a whole different experience. Regardless of where you are sitting in the restaurant, you can still see all the action that happens in our open kitchen.

Where does the name EXP. come from and what inspired you to call it that?

It’s about the experience.

Everything that goes into everything here whether it’s the food, the wine, the handmade locally produced plates and cutlery, and locally sourced produce all comes together to create a full experience.

When I worked at Muse, I was there for 4.5 years, and I had the name ready to go after about two years of working there. So, I had held onto the name EXP. for 2.5 years before I even started this.

I built a website first before we even had the space because I wanted to visualise what it would look like. The website was a bit like my own personal mood board for EXP.

You’re big on working with a selection of amazing producers and craftsmen – can you tell us more about your local collaborations?

Our collaborations page talks about who we work with and we also include links to their websites and social media. It’s all about helping other local businesses and exposing their work.

We’ll have ideas of things that we want to progress towards as a business, and these local craftsmen will hand make them one of a kind for us.

I remember when we first opened, I found the gentleman that made these tables. His partner was a ceramicist, so she made our first set of plates. We’ve worked with a few different local ceramicists and it’s something that I’ve always loved doing with the business.

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Is there a project you’re currently working on?

I’ve got a few different things here in the works currently, and sometimes these things take six or more months from conception to finished product.

Our newest piece is this wax plate that we use for our dessert. It looks like a piece of honeycomb. One of our local plate makers has an engineering background and has a 3D printer. I asked if she could make me a silicone mould for me to pour beeswax into and make these plates.

It's not like I have these genius ideas every day, they’re often months in the planning and every now and then you get a real gold nugget.

What about your collaborations with local producers? 

In terms of our menu, and our producers, we’ve really simplified it; we literally have one word for each dish. It might just be the local producer for instance Little Bell Farm Chicken, Redgate Farm Duck, Yellowfin Tuna, or Morpeth Cabbage.

It’s a single item and people don’t know what to expect. We’re not hyping up each dish – they leave the surprise to us and then we get to describe where all the local produce is from.  

How much people want to get involved with the experience will depend on each diner. We have a QR code on the corner of our menu where the diner can either choose to keep the dish details to a minimum or they can scan the QR code which will share an in-depth description of the menu.

It's almost like choosing your own experience – either keep it simplified and as a surprise, or follow along in depth.  

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What do you love most about what you get to do daily with EXP. Restaurant and Fawk Foods Kitchen & Bakery?

It’s rewarding every single day. When customers come in and say things like ‘wow this is the best meal I’ve ever had,’ that’s got to be the best feeling.

What do you think has helped make your business as successful as it is today?

We’ve been compounding on our knowledge and experience over the years as well as leaning on our dedicated staff and giving them training and bringing in quality systems, just like Square, to help with the day to day running.

To get to this point where we’re incredibly happy with the business has been through building such a solid team with some amazing staff.

We’ve now reached that point where we are attracting quality staff because we have that reputation. It has taken us eight years to get to this point, and it’s just going to continue to get better and easier because we have the knowledge and the background.

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What piece of advice would you give to emerging small business owners?

You’ve got to have an idea and you’ve got to stick with that. You can’t copy and paste something else already out there. You’ve got to have an original idea that is purely yours.

Then you’ve just got to be prepared to put in the work, do your research, and find the right people and the right systems that work for your business.

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What does the future look like for EXP. Restaurant and Fawk Foods Kitchen & Bakery?

If things aren’t working in small business, you must think about how you can change them. For us, what hasn’t been working is the cafe side of things.

We’re reducing our team size and tightening things up, but still offering a premium and consistent product. We’re really refining Fawk Foods Kitchen & Bakery so that it’s a good reflection of what we do across the board.

Recently, we’ve also stepped up and refined the EXP. experience. We’ve changed to offer a standard menu [EXP.erience] as well as a premium experience [Chef’s EXP.erience]. We’ve done the same thing for our wine matches.

We’ve found this is working really well as people are usually coming through for a unique experience and for a special occasion. They want to go all out.

As always, everyone gets snacks at the start. It’s a pretty impressive way to start a meal with a whole smorgasbord of snacks laid out in front of you.

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Whether you’re a frequent diner at Fawk Foods Kitchen & Bakery and EXP. Restaurant or Frank’s culinary masterpieces are news to you, a visit to Pokolbin Village’s food and drink institution should be on the list for your next visit to the Hunter Valley. 

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