Responding nimbly to the needs of the local Korean and Chinese communities has helped one Eastwood operator thrive with a little help from MAX.
The best-laid plans of mice and men, as they say, often go awry, but the trick to running a successful business is recognising what doesn’t work quickly and adapting smartly. Paul Dirou, General Manager of Rowe Street’s thriving Moko Eastwood in Sydney, understands this innately.
A hospitality industry veteran and former board member of the Australian Hotels Association NSW, where he established the Gaming Committee, Dirou has seen his efforts at Moko embraced enthusiastically by the local Korean and Chinese communities. But that wasn’t always the case, despite Dirou and Korean business partner James Jeong doing extensive homework.
“Initially we didn’t get it right,” he recalls with a wry chuckle. “We actually went too far, particularly in the kitchen offering. You have to be dynamic and you’ve got to have open eyes and ears. Talking to our customers, it became apparent straightaway that a traditional Korean menu was being offered all around us by their old favourites, and you just can’t break through that. There are traditional bonds of loyalty that go back generations.”
Instead they pivoted towards a more contemporary, younger presence that complemented, rather than rubbed up against, their strip neighbours. As a result, the menu now offers standard pub fare like a chicken parma or bangers and mash alongside Korean dumplings and spiced pork with steamed rice. Meanwhile, the gaming offering, working with MAX, is constantly updated, embracing the latest technology. “Younger audiences are less interested in old machines, even five-year-old favourites,” he notes. “They’re interested in the new.”
“I get constant feedback about how good it is, how great it looks and feels, and how the street really needed a quality venue that actually catered to the local community.”
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Picking the right area is half the battle, and even if there was a slight hiccup in the initial offering, the location was always spot on, Dirou says. “There’s a move at the moment for a lot of smart hoteliers to head into greenfield sites in Western Sydney and the like, which are basically on the fringe where the city’s growing outwards, right?But Sydney’s growing internally as well, and we looked at the Ryde local government as an area that has had real spike in population, with a surge of new units, so the place was underserved.”
The spot where Moko now stands used to be an Asian supermarket that had fallen into disrepair. Recognising its potential when the operators moved on, the Eastwood team negotiated a deal with the landlord and went back to basics, pulling out everything except the roof frame. “We had to install new draining and plumbing and then put on a whole new slab and built up from there. So basically the whole thing is brand new,” Dirou says.
Working with Korean builders, they drew on traditional details like the impressive thatched ceiling finish and lots of appealing timber features. In a nice touch, they imported a considerable haul of kimchi fermentation pots that now hang in an architectural flourish above the bar.
While the build started just more than two years ago, the approval hurdles have taken five years. “The holding costs have been high to get it through the twofold approval process,” Dirou notes. “We had a good run through council because we were well-supported in our application by the local community. The Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority was a bit more difficult, but we managed to convince them of the merits of our application and we got ourselves a hotel licence.”
Two years on, Moko Eastwood is firmly knitted into the fabric of Rowe Street, Dirou says. “We all get on well, which is really helpful. The street’s got a fantastic camaraderie, even across language barriers.”
His young team are members of the Korean and Chinese communities they serve. “They are all bi- or trilingual, which is fantastic,” Dirou adds, noting that he’s learned just as much from them as they have the other way around. “I’m nearly 60 and these kids are in their late teens and early 20s. They are students mainly, and they are all high achievers with a great work ethic. You get inspired by that, and they have been absolutely vital in helping me with valuable insights into what the community actually wants, and in responding to that feedback.”
Dirou has also enjoyed considerable support from the team at MAX, which has helped him keep on top of the latest innovations, in turn appealing to that younger, more switched-on clientele.
“Of course they offer financial capital as one element of what they do, but I can go to the bank or to a manufacturer like Aristocrat and get ‘X’ amount of money. But that’s it. See you later.”
Working with MAX’s General Manager of Venue Services, Paul Carew, Dirou says he has been able to draw down on something far more valuable than financial support. “It’s their expertise that’s the big point of difference,” he says. “Within MAX, there are a lot of different knowledge centres, with skillsets that I just can’t do, or would be very difficult for me to do.”
“MAX brings … a huge gaming selection, which is vital. We’re doing something a little bit different from traditional clubs and pubs.”
One of the areas in which he has felt most supported is in MAX’s marketing know-how. “They’ve helped me to run a whole bunch of happy-go-lucky giveaways that have been great,” Dirou enthuses. “The customers love them, but historically, these have been difficult because you’ve got to do all the artwork, then set them up and find a supplier for all the prizes.”
MAX does all that finicky legwork for him. “They’ve made my life very easy. I’ve got this professional marketing group helping me provide all these extras, running giveaways in such a professional manner, which looks great and gives me a market advantage over my competitors straightaway, but without all the hassle, so I can concentrate on running other things instead of having to troop off to the shopping mall to buy toasters.”
At the time of talking to State of Play, Dirou has two promotions teed up in the coming 10-week period and has been thrilled by the positive feedback he has received from customers, accruing a great deal of goodwill with minimum fuss at his end. “It makes all the difference,” he says.
The other major benefit of working with MAX goes back to his younger customer base, their hunger for the latest gaming innovations, and his fleet- footed approach to fixing whatever isn’t working. “MAX brings to bear a huge gaming selection, which is vital. We’re doing something a little bit different from traditional clubs and pubs. We’re a bit more dynamic, and frankly a bit more demanding. If things aren’t working, we respond instantly, so I really pester them, probably.”
Chuckling again, he says the team at MAX has been very accommodating of his constantly evolving requirements. “To their absolute credit, they say ‘yep’. They understand where you’re coming from and have been very, very responsive. Where they see issues with the product, they respond, so we are as up-to-date as we can be, which in gaming I think is vital. As a full-service gaming venue, we’ve embraced all the latest hardware, and the add-on products MAX offers are second to none. They help you keep abreast of upcoming new product that helps us to keep it fresh.”
That approach helped Dirou scale up quickly when required, from an initial nine gaming machines to 30. “We always knew this would be an area that would have an appetite for gaming, so we intended to grow that, but when we started, we soon realised that the government was shifting the rules a bit.”
That meant responding quickly and smartly again. “We thought we’d move towards 20, but Ryde went from Band 1 to Band 2 and back again, so we pushed straight to 30 because of the uncertainty,” he says. “You have to be quick off the mark, because regulation windows open and regulation windows close. You can’t control that. The government have got their heart in the right place, but it can be a bit unnerving.”
The other key appeal for Dirou is a genuine sense that MAX cares about more than just the number of machines on the floor. “When I sit down with my business representative, we’re always working out what we can do better in the venue, without being particularly wedded to a manufacturer, or a game, or a particular piece of hardware. They care about the whole of your business, so we talk as much about our food offering as we do about the machines. It’s much more holistic.
Walking around the venue, Dirou can see the fruit of that whole of business approach, with a little help from MAX and a lot of help from his young team, all wrapped up in his genuine care for the local community in which they operate. “Our customers love this place. I get constant feedback about how good it is, how great it looks and feels, and how the street really needed a quality venue that actually catered to the community. That’s priceless.”