This Restaurant Made Better Burgers In The Time It Took To Cross The Road

Jack Phillips | Interviews

Restaurateur Dante Ruaine started his journey to becoming lord of all burgerdom because of a chance bad experience with a neighbourhood kebab shop.

Having spent years working in bars and restaurants across Melbourne, it was Dante Ruaine who first conceived of his now venerable fluoro-tinged burger joint concept while running another restaurant. Whilst wrapping up the night’s service at his of his former restaurant Huxtable, the Kiwi-born restauranteur followed a group of friends into the busy kebab shop next door to see what the fuss was about. “I took the foil off and then it unravelled… I was like, oh, we could do better than this… we crossed the road and opened the shop pretty much.”

“When we opened, we were like – no shakes, too messy,”
We made salads in the beginning.
No one touched them.”

Huxtable was of fancier fair than its now more casual sibling, with a menu that served up fusion dishes designed to be shared. Fresh oysters and sweet edamame sat alongside sticky beef rendang and duck and liver parfait on a concise yet varied menu. Huxtable focused on fresh ingredients, great service, and impeccable execution,

Huxtaburger is born from that same ethos, but as Ruaine impresses, …without any of the “wankiness” you may expect at some fine dining institutions. His concept proved successful enough that after some years of running the two side-by-side they shuttered Huxtable to focus on the growth of Huxtaburger.

Ruaine admits that their timing was impeccable. They rode a burger wave after opening in 2011, that saw boutique patty joints spring up for an audience wanting more than a $3 burger, minus the waiter with a name badge. That said, it wasn’t all easy sailing and there were plenty of lessons learnt in those early days. “When we opened, we were like –‘ no shakes, too messy’,” he laughs, “no chicken burgers, don’t want to do that. No vegetarian stuff. We made salads in the beginning, like good ones. No one touched them.”

Trialling new menu items, ditching ones that didn’t hit and doubling down on the ones that did, helped the team to work out the business’ DNA early. It was the classic cheeseburgers, fries and fried chicken that were the biggest hits. More locations followed and it wasn’t long before Ruaine was in unchartered territory, scaling a food business faster than many may consider comfortable.

“I think it was at store three and I was doing most of the ops, opening a store and setting it up with a manager. Before you know it, you’re going back to store one going, ‘Hey, we’ve lost a shift supervisor’ and you start to lose track.”

“Everyone in the business was like:
‘Hey, thanks for all the extra assignments, Dante’.”

“In the end, we were recruiting people into our head office team that had the experience that we needed to proceed with confidence,” he says, now believing that delegation is key to scale, especially when franchising. “We have a marketing team… our GM does a fantastic job. I’m almost like that old dog in the business now. I’m trying to learn a few new tricks.” He laughs.

When it came to COVID, Ruaine says that looking after the staff was tough and that stubbornness and resilience were a component of them pulling through as a team. “We thought when COVID kicked in we were going to have a lot of spare time,” he says, going on to explain that they had planned to focus on wages, inventory, and a new POS system in their free time. “We took on these huge projects and then sales maintained, even grew in some stores. Plus, we’d taken on all these projects. Everyone in the business was like, ‘Hey, thanks for all the extra assignments, Dante’.”

Huxtaburger’s latest opening in Geelong is their largest undertaking yet. Having been on the hunt for a new location for some time, the size and task of turning the 400sq ft former lounge bar into an entertainment space that encourages people to stay for hours instead of minutes was a welcome one. “I could just see the opportunity here,” he says.

But whether it’s a hole in the wall or a behemoth venue, Ruaine and his team recognise that their power and their brand lie in the simplicity of a great burger done well every time. “When we’re doing a limited release, that’s when we try and jazz it up a bit, but we still want to make it for as many people as possible, wherever possible.”

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