Memories of idyllic childhood days growing up on a farm in Grafton fueled The Grounds founder and creative director Ramzey Choker’s desire to create an inner-city oasis.
Whether you’re a coffee junkie, an inner-city hipster, a Sydney family or an international tourist, no visit to the inner west would be complete without a drop-in at The Grounds.
Set on the site of the former Four ‘n’ Twenty pie factory, The Grounds first opened its doors in 2012, converting the disused car park and warehouse space into a stunning café and garden. In the five years since, it has sprawled across the old industrial estate to encompass a restaurant, florist shop, bakery, markets, bar, coffee school, wood-fired pizza place and of course a fabulous array of farmyard friends. Founder Ramzey Choker’s vision to turn the disused space into a haven for inner city families and friends has delivered in spades.
What is perhaps most inspiring for any new small business owner is Choker’s success came from hard work and ingenuity. After the GFC left Choker and his family all but penniless, the entrepreneur knew he had to come up with a way to once again provide for the future. While having no money to start his dream venture, what Choker did have in spades, was passion, vision and tenacity. With the help of his family and friends Choker raised the half a million to bring his idea to fruition and with the security of a 20-year lease in place, he set about bringing The Grounds to life.
“The concept of The Grounds was born out of a need and desire to look after my family,” he says. “I wanted to honour the memory of my father and all of the lessons he taught me, and do something truly great for not only the community but the whole country. I wanted to build places and spaces that allow our guests to interact and reconnect with one another. The world is moving so fast and I believe that connection has been lost,” he says.
Judging by The Grounds popularity, it seemed Choker struck a chord. Still, it took six-months before the business began to make a profit. Now turnover is in the millions and Choker has gone from employing a staff of 15 to over 250 people. Along the way Choker has continued to push the envelope with The Grounds’ concepts and creativity.
“To me, business is about innovation and reinventing yourself to predict what your customers need before they know it,” Choker tells Kochie’s Business Builders. “A lesson I’ve learnt is to not fall in love with your product but instead with your customer. Your business must always be adaptable so you can continue to evolve.”
Much of The Grounds success rests on Choker’s ability to continually raise the bar for the customer experience.
“Creating experiences is what we talk about but it’s really about knowing who our customers are and finding ways to add value to their life,” he says. “That’s why we keep innovating and evolving.”
At the heart of every new addition to the plan lies The Grounds ethos: “to create special moments in people’s lives”.
“The Grounds is a place where you can experience beauty, inspiration, connection and joy. We understand what our core focus is and we live and breathe it. It’s also our will to serve and always improve – we’re relentless when it comes to that.”
Since The Grounds first opened, a number of imitators have sprung up. Whilst Choker says it’s flattering, he suggests business operators would do better to follow their own dreams.
“Business is brutal and I know how hard it is. If you don’t 100 per cent understand your own passion and meaning, you won’t have what it takes for long term success, and that’s the sad fact to it.”
Fortunately, Choker’s passion has never waned and has allowed him to open several pop-up versions of The Grounds. Despite the transience of these venues, Choker says he loves creating them.
“Of course, creating amazing experiences and adding value to our customers’ lives is what we’re all about, but council restrictions and the governance around our pop-ups make it incredibly difficult.”
This year there will be no Grounds pop-up at Sculpture by the Sea, the annual outdoor sculpture exhibition at Bondi Beach. However, Choker has plans afoot for new ventures and recently made his first inroad into Sydney’s CBD with Grounds of The City tucked away in The Galleries.
Tackling a second full time business in a new location has stretched Choker, but he insists careful planning across all areas of the business has allowed him to bring his vision for the new space to life with minimal risk.
“We definitely approached the model differently. For The Grounds of the City, we knew who our customers were, projected ourselves into the future and created a space with beauty and value tailored for them.”
As this massive beast of a business continues to evolve, Choker has his eyes on the prize continuing to deliver a business that inspires and delights his customers. Key to his vison is his staff. According to Choker it’s all about his “people, people, people”.
“It’s one of our four key pillars within The Grounds. along with our customers, beauty and the numbers. It’s extremely challenging but it’s about finding people that believe in your vision and can bring it to life. A big part of The Grounds is making sure our staff want to learn and evolve which helps with the business growth and evolution.”
With 15 years to go on his 20-year lease, no doubt The Grounds will continue to evolve.
In the short-term Choker says he will continue to focus on creating a better experience for his customers.
“A few projects that are first up include redeveloping the kids’ area, refreshing the café and roastery. We’ll also continue to create new experiences hosting special events and activations.
“We’re developing an education arm of the business, sharing our talents in styling, coffee and baking, and will increase our community involvement. We’re developing the way we make everything efficient for our loyal customers and are currently looking for a few more venues, including another city space, a new roastery and an events space.”
Meanwhile he continues to credit his continued success to the lessons he learned from his late father.
He was an amazing businessman and the exposure I had to the running of his business and his work ethic gave me the hunger to create my own business.”