Feel good Mexican on Beaumont St
From waiting tables at Tamworth’s Hog’s Breath Cafe to silver service dining at the Captain’s table on the QE2, Liam Benson’s career in hospitality has literally covered it all.
Liam now calls Newcastle home firmly entrenching himself in hospo life once again, this time under the feel good Mexican brand, Zambrero. Catching up with Liam in his Beaumont St store Liam chats to us about clocking up more than 20 years of hospo life, why Zambrero and his future plans.
Thanks for your time Liam. Did you grow up in Newcastle?
No, I am originally from Tamworth, Tamworth born and bred.
Is the food and hospitality industry always been one that interested you?
Yeah definitely. When I was 14 I started working in retail as well as at the local Hog’s Breath, I didn’t see myself going to uni and what I quickly discovered was that I loved hospitality.
I saved my money and headed off overseas spending a year in Edinburgh, from there I was able to secure a job on the QE2, and by age 19 I was working on the Captain’s table and classed in the top 5% for silver service. It was really nice to be able to say that a country boy from the Hogs Breath in Tamworth made it to the world stage when it came to fine dining and silver service.
I visited 60 countries in my time onboard the ship, following this I returned to Tamworth and began managing the Hog’s Breath and bought the business soon after, I was 21 at the time, and this took me on a very steep learning curve.
From the QE2 to the Hogs Breath in Tamworth, they’re two very different scenes, what brought you back to where you started?
It was something I knew and it was fun and casual. Early on what I discovered was that I really value developing young staff and giving them the skills required if they want to make hospitality their career, which I’ve always seen as a career.
Hoggy’s was a great training ground for me, it was a large scale operation and a lot of hard work, long days of not seeing my family. I had the business for 10 years and in that time I grew it by 50%, after I sold it I went into events and that’s when I found myself in Newcastle. It was at the same time that Zambrero at Kotara came up for sale, I used to go there all the time and I really liked the freshness of the food, six months later I purchased it.
Running a fast food style restaurant is quite different to what you were doing at Hog’s Breath, what attracted you to this style of business?
I enjoyed the simplicity of it, it was a walk in the park in comparison to Hogs Breath which had up to 15 chefs and 30 waitresses that I had to develop. Across the three restaurants I have now (Kotara, Cessnock & Hamilton) I have about 20 staff.
I also really enjoyed the message behind the brand. Doctor Sam Prince, who started Zambrero’s back in 2005 was at the time studying to be a doctor in Canberra and he recognized that there was a market out there for really good quality Mexican. As a part of Zambrero he developed the Plate 4 Plate program whereby for every meal served at a Zambrero store one is delivered back to the developing world, with the ultimate goal being for Zambrero to deliver 1 billion meals by 2025, so far 40 million dishes have been donated.
We should say fast food isn’t probably the best way to describe Zambrero’s given how healthy it is.
We make all the food in front of you and each of the dishes are fast to assemble, but it’s not fast food in the sense of the quality. We use a lot of superfoods in the meals, our black rice is the lowest GI grain available so it’s that slow-release energy burn and for people who are training and conscious of their health it’s great, it fills them up. We get a lot of your gym-goers for that reason as well as uni students as it’s healthy and affordable.
You’ve managed to build the business up quite quickly here in Newcastle, you now have three stores, what do you think has been the key to your success in doing so?
I see Newcastle as a big country town so for me to get the right staff is really important, getting the culture of the business is massive I want my team to turn up and want to work.
I also try to employ local people, I joke about it but my staff are either with me for three years or three months. Having that 15-year-old kid that can do it as their day job and stay with us during uni or go onto become managers, that’s really important to me, and my staff are my biggest priority.
How has the business fared during Covid?
During Covid the business has actually grown and our brand has strengthened, a lot of our orders are now coming through online, and people want a healthy takeaway option. I’d say where we are with home delivery now is where we would have been in three years.
Have you got future plans for Zambrero?
I have two new stores due to open soon, one in Muswellbrook and the other one in Coffs Harbour which is exciting that we're able to expand a little further afield. We also have some new menu items planned as the weather warms so keep your eyes out for them.