For Rob and Karen Gough, owners of Settlers Tavern and the Margaret River Ale Company, travel inspires every part of their business.
So when they bought a pub in the idyllic south-west corner of Western Australia in 2003, they set out to create their dream venue, drawing on everything from the casual charm of California and the cocktail bars of New York City to the classic pubs of London and the whopping wine lists of South Australia – even a 500-year-old osteria in Bologna, Italy.
“It was clearly the embodiment of the flavour of the town. And that’s the kind of place we want – one that really embodies the culture and the vibe of Margaret River,” says Rob.
“When we travel anywhere – in Australia, America or around the world – we’re always looking for that place. The local. The heart of the town.”
The first thing they did at “The Tav” was upgrade the wine list; it now boasts more than 600 international drops. They also wanted a place that made really great coffee so they set up the Sidekick Cafe next door to the tavern. And it was Rob’s love of beer that fermented into the Margaret River Ale Company in 2011.
“I stumbled upon an abandoned brew house in the industrial area and it captured my imagination. It just dawned on me that we could be making our own beer,” he says.
When it came to naming and labelling his brews, Rob – a California native – wanted to pay homage to his adopted home. “We have our benchmark beer, Rockin’ Pale Ale, which is a nod to our music program here at Settlers. It’s an American-style pale ale inspired by the beers of California. We do a beer called Great White Ale, with a shark on the label, because the great white is one of the great creatures of the south-west ocean. We have a beer called Bombora Pilsener – bombora is an Aboriginal term for waves crashing over rocks – and that’s a Czech-style pilsner. Plus, we have an IPA from time to time that we call Day-Tr’IPA.
“It’s been a point of difference for us at the tavern to proudly serve something we’ve made ourselves. And it’s very popular. About a third of all the beer we sell on tap is ours and we produce it in cans as well.”
While they’re currently limited by capacity – it’s just Rob and his brewer making about 20 kegs a fortnight in the small brewery – the Goughs are looking for a new location and thinking long-term about integrating beer distribution into their business.
“It’s easy to brew beer but it’s really hard to make great beer and that’s why I employ the services of a real expert,” says Rob. “But I enjoy rolling up my sleeves and getting in the brewery. It’s really physical work, shovelling malt out of the mash drum and scrubbing tanks when you’re all done. But if you love making beer it’s not hard.”
Loving where you live helps, too. Rob and Karen met in his native San Francisco, where Karen – who hails from Bunbury, a stone’s throw from Margaret River – was working as a restaurant manager and wine importer.
“We were there for 10 years together and I had a running joke: ‘You’ve had me for 10 years here, now you have to come to Australia for 10 years’,” says Karen.
“We were kind of infatuated – intoxicated, so to speak – with this region,” says Rob. “It’s a pretty special place. Plus, down here, life is a little simpler and we like that.”
The isolation can be both a blessing and a curse. Attracting and retaining good staff in a small town is a challenge, not to mention the logistics and cost of transport. “We pay more for kegs, more for wine, more for everything. Everything just takes longer and costs more,” says Karen.
But using Qantas Points earned with their American Express Qantas Business Rewards Card has saved them money on their travel bills. Utilising the card for all manner of expenses – from paying suppliers to paying their quarterly GST – the business earns up to 400,000 Qantas Points a year, which the Goughs have previously used to fly to the east coast for awards events, conferences and simply to stay in touch with what’s happening in the hospitality world.
“We always come back with some inspirational idea when we travel,” says Karen. “But it can be expensive to get from Perth over to the east coast a lot so we use our points for that.”
After a challenging year, the Goughs are looking forward to a reward of their own once international travel begins again.
“I owe my wife a trip to Italy,” says Rob. “We have been trying to get away to go to Piedmont, particularly for Barolo – one of our favourite wines of the world.”
Rob and Karen’s top business tips
Invest in your staff: “A lot of small businesses underestimate the importance of having trained staff,” says Karen Gough, who employs up to 70 people during busy periods. “It does cost more money and time and that’s why a lot of businesses don’t do it. But it comes back to you. As an employer, it’s your duty to impart what you know, especially to young people, and give them a sense of ownership, a purpose and, for us, teaching them that hospitality is a real job.”
Be a trailblazer: “We were the first people to offer free wi-fi here, around 2004. And it was like, ‘Wow!’ You’d see people walking around the streets with a computer, holding it up to look for the wi-fi signal,” laughs Karen. “We stopped selling plastic water bottles back in 2004 and did away with plastic straws a decade ago. Sustainability is important to us.”
Ask for help when you need it: “Our message to other small businesses would be to hang in there and don’t be afraid to ask for help, whether it’s from your partners, suppliers, the business community or government,” says Rob. “American Express has been great during COVID,” adds Karen. “We were able to pay some things we needed to pay using our American Express Qantas Business Rewards Card. The Card helped us float some things during the really difficult time.”