Francis Chehade: The man behind Melbourne's Highest Rated Cafe
17 February, 2020
Francis Chehade is Lebanese by birth, but his story is quintessentially Australian. It embodies the best aspects of this country, most specifically, opportunity and diversity. Francis has charisma to burn, he is proactive, which he combines with an insane work-ethic, traits which propelled him from university drop-out, to the owner of one of Melbourne’s most cherished cafes.
Francis was born in Hadchit, Lebanon, a village known for its consumption of Arak, an aniseed flavoured liquor which places closer on the alcoholic scale to ethanol than that of house spirits. He immigrated to Australia at age 18, and supported his university lifestyle with a bartending job on Lygon Street. Francis and engineering were not to be, and soon after making the decision to abandon study, an opportunity presented itself from an unlikely source, a haircut. Whilst at a hairdresser, Francis met the landlord of a Terrace house in Hawthorn East, who offered to financially support
the conversion of the property into a neighbourhood café. Francis accepted, teamed-up with an architect and builder, and months later, Shanklin Café was brought into the world. The venue was designed and developed to strike a balance between a functionality, which best supports “operation and workflow”, and a contemporary elegance, or as Francis describes it, “a work of art”.
“getting people through the door is the easy part. The key is opening a relationship with our customers and maintaining it.”
For most hospitality ventures, the initial months are teething, mistakes are made, lessons are learnt and efficiencies are developed, and this is commonly reflected by varying customer revues. If Shanklin was affected by this, you wouldn’t know it. In a mere five months of trade, it boasted the highest rating of all Melbourne cafes and restaurants on Zomato, Google as well as a number of other social media platforms. Francis attributes this success to the emphasis he placed on customer relationships, “getting people through the door is the easy part. The key is opening a relationship with our customers and maintaining it.” Anyone who has met Francis will attest to his infectious enthusiasm, and he has continually put this to good use, avowing the importance of a positive, community work environment and its correlation to satisfied customers, “people love Shanklin so much because each member of the team is personable and professional. It isn’t like a workplace so much as a hub. Staff will even come to hangout on their days off.”
“Lebanese people are very resilient and have lived through decades of political instability and daily life disappointments."
At the core of Francis’ ability to succeed is his outgoing nature. Rewind to that hairdresser some years ago, there is little doubt that his extraversion and gift for connecting with people was the source of the Shanklin opportunity. Francis credits his upbringing for these characteristics, “Lebanon relies a lot on the tourism sector, so the people are naturally very hospitable. Being like that in the food industry is very important. On another note, Lebanese people are very resilient and have lived through decades of political instability and daily life disappointments. We learn to live through challenges and turn it into a positive, so that helped me considerably in my first business.”
Perhaps more remarkable than Francis’ business accomplishments, despite relative inexperience, is his willingness to move onto new challenges. “Shanklin was a learning curve for me, I learnt a lot and I am proud of the reputation I built, given the need to focus on my two new ventures I have sold Shanklin to new owners.” Dutton Garage Cafe, situated within the collectable car dealership Dutton Garage, and Eltham restaurant Franco & Co, fall under The Four Shanklins Group, and are now the subjects of his entrepreneurial attention.
"It is no exaggeration to say it is one of the best breakfast plates I have ever had"
When asked about his favourite dish at Shanklin, Francis recalls with nostalgia, enjoying the signature plate, The Portobello Mushroom. He describes the dish, which is influenced by his Lebanese heritage, as “gorgeous and bursting with vibrant colours. Panko crumbed with zaatar spice on a bed of spinach, stacked with haloumi, roasted capsicum, topped with two perfectly poached eggs, and finished with a little romesco sauce and chilli oil. I loved that dish. It is no exaggeration to say it is one of the best breakfast plates I have ever had. The flavours work incredibly well in combination, and the crumbed mushroom has a glorious texture.”
With his gaze squarely fixed on the future, Francis is able to reflect on lessons learnt, saying “don’t be afraid to do things differently, it might be the only thing that puts ahead of your competitors. Success is an ongoing journey, not a destination.”
MON TO SUN : 7AM - 3PM
500 Toorongo Road, Harthorn East
Dutton Garage Cafe
MON TO FRI : 7AM - 4PM
SAT : 8:30 - 3PM
41 Madden Grove, Richmond