This week on the Post Some Love Podcast, Steve Strauss talks to Bonnie Shearston, co-owner of Pollen, one of the hottest restaurants in LA’s Echo Park neighborhood. Listen to her story about coming from Australia to LA and the importance of positive online reviews.
Post Some Love: Pollen Podcast Transcript
Steve Strauss: There must have been challenges opening up a business in a different continent and then two different businesses on two different continents. How did you do that?
Bonnie Shearston: The challenges have been enormous. Not only trying to get Pollen open and trying to get our heads around state and federal law and all the different taxes and the employment laws and all the the permits. You have permits for everything in this country. It’s amazing.
Steve Strauss: Hi, I’m Steve Strauss, USA Today’s senior small business columnist and author of The Small Business Bible and you’re listening to the “Post Some Love” series on Bank of America’s Small Business podcast. This is the series where we speak with small business owners about their journey and share some of their great customer reviews. Today, we’re speaking with Bonnie Shearston of Pollen Restaurant in Los Angeles. Pollen is the sixth restaurant from the Happy Fat Group which is the umbrella for ventures and collaborations of Bonnie Shearston and her business partner, Tom Saunsow.
They were recently named Queensland’s Young Entrepreneurs of the Year. Bonnie and Tom have already cemented their reputation in Australia with a range of diverse award-winning venues, from small bars, to restaurant and pubs. But in 2017, the duo opened up their first restaurant in Los Angeles’s Echo Park. Pollen is a mostly outdoor Australian café and restaurant with plenty of tables, a beautiful coffee bar, an impressive breakfast and brunch menu…
This new business is primed for success, and in fact, if you go online and take a look, they have a ton of really glowing online reviews – over a hundred last I saw on Yelp.
So, we are really fortunate to have Bonnie on the show today and so Bonnie, welcome.
Bonnie Shearston: Thank you very much for having me.
Steve Strauss: I’ve got a lot of questions for you but let me start with this. I’ve heard a lot of different names for businesses, but the Happy Fat Group, that is one fun and different name of a business, can you just tell us about that a little bit?
Bonnie Shearston: We were trying to find an umbrella name that covered everything that we do and like you’ve already mention, all of our venues are extremely diverse so, we just thought we’d have a little bit of fun with it, and ultimately our goal is to make people fat and happy and drunk, I guess. So, Happy Fat Group kind of worked for us.
Steve Strauss: Oh, that’s great. So how… tell us a little more about how your background, how did you get started, how did you meet Tom, and how did you guys decide, originally, to start a business in Australia?
Bonnie Shearston: Well Tom and I are both English, as I’m sure you can hear in my accent. And, we moved to Australia back in 2008. I was about 23 back then and Tom was 30. So, we worked in Brisbane for about a year. Just working out our market, finding where the gaps were and what was needed and then decided to embark on our first venture in 2009 and opened up a little cocktail and wine bar. It was, um, out in the suburbs in Brisbane. It was…it was really hard really to try to get anyone to call us back.
We found this site that we loved, but because we were two young, foreign kids that no one knew about, trying to even get the landlord to call us back with options and venues and things, it was really, really difficult. But, we did it, and we did it all ourselves pretty much. We have a couple of business partners involved in that one.
There wasn’t a huge budget, so we did a lot of the building and shifting and lifting ourselves with the four of us and opened up this little cocktail and wine bar. I think we were very fortunate with the timing. It was the first small bar license to be granted in Brisbane, which was immediately a selling point for us ‘cause it was this new concept.
It went from being a city of large hotels, and pubs and poke machines and gambling rooms to these small, intimate, cocktail bars. So, we were very fortunate with our timing on that.
Steve Strauss: So, what was it in your background that made you want to become an entrepreneur? I mean, you were pretty young when you started. So, probably not started a business before, was it in your family or in your DNA, what was it?
Bonnie Shearston: I never set out to be an entrepreneur. That was not my intention, I love the industry and I was very fortunate to be given amazing opportunities from a very young age with a company I was working for back in the UK and I worked across Europe for them and I put a lot of responsibility on me at a young age and I obviously learned a lot. It was a huge learning curve and just decided that I wanted to try and give it a go myself. I think a lot of people have asked me, how did you do it at such a young age? How did you take that risk?
And to be honest, it’s much easier when you’re younger because you don’t have that a lot of responsibilities. If it hadn’t turned out right, I could have started again, whereas people who have worked and had a family and a house and a mortgage and then want to try and do it there’s a lot more at stake so…
Steve Strauss: Right, and you don’t know what you don’t know, right? And so like let’s just do it.
Bonnie Shearston: Exactly, just got for it, and if it doesn’t work out, start again.
Steve Strauss: And, Australia is kind of a land of second opportunities. I have a very good friend who’s an entrepreneurship professor there and one of the things he tells me is that it’s really a country that’s conducive to people taking risks. Did you find that as well?
Bonnie Shearston: Well, look, it’s a very large piece of land with not a lot of people on it, so, I guess there’s a lot of opportunity there. But no, it’s…moving country…obviously it was to a to a westernized country, I’ve got family roots there so I had connections, I don’t think it’s particularly easy to open up a venue anywhere, but there’s certainly something easier to do it in a familiar setting where you got people around you that you know.
The legislation is pretty difficult over there, there’s a lot of red tape, especially up in Queensland. And it’s expensive, it’s a very expensive country to live in. But you know, I don’t think it’s going to be very easy to open up a venue anywhere particular.
Steve Strauss: I got the sense reading about your first business that it was a hit from the start, is that accurate?
Bonnie Shearston: It was, like I said we were very fortunate with our timing and it being the first small bar license granted. And, I think people were just really taken by the fact that it’s very focused on the craft of the cocktail and being small and intimate and just having such a point of difference that it immediately recognizes as one of the best bars in Australia at the time, which was amazing.
You know, it wasn’t something that we were planning on, but it was an incredible award to be received. We were granted the honor of being Australia’s best new bar back in 2011.
Steve Strauss: Wow, Congratulations, that is impressive, yeah.
Bonnie Shearston: And we went again a year or two later to win the best cocktail menu in Australia and it won a whole bunch of other accolades in between that and so it did, it went really well, we were very blessed with that one.
Steve Strauss: Well, you know the same of the show is “Post Some Love”, as I mentioned there are a lot of really glowing online reviews about all of your restaurants. Let me read you one about Pollen and tell me what you think of this. "This is the cutest breakfast bunch spot ever. I love the decor, the food is super yummy and reasonably price. I had the polenta with fried egg and I ate the baguette with butter and jam. We also happened to get the last chocolate cookie of the day, which was as big as my head. [Laughs] I will definitely try the savory pastries next time."
Bonnie Shearston: Wonderful.
Steve Strauss: That must be the kind of thing that you really love right? Hearing people talk about your restaurants that way.
Bonnie Shearston: It is. Look, it's fantastic and obviously Yelp and these review platforms here in LA are so important to people and it’s how they make their daily decisions on what they want to do in terms of food and drink. But, you know, you’ve got to actually base your success and how you feel about your venue off the customers that are coming in.
Having online reviews that are glowing is wonderful and it’s so nice that people take the time out to write something positive, and it’s great to share that with your staff. It's a real morale booster to get something fantastic to come through, you know, post it up on the staff page, congratulate everyone especially if someone’s picked out, as a waiter or chef or...
It's really important, likewise, you know, if you do get something negative, it's good to try to take that feedback back onboard and build off that.
Steve Strauss: It does seem though that, if you do your job right and you create a great product – in your case, it's great food and a wonderful atmosphere – then the rest of it will take care of itself. And you're gonna get those positive reviews. But it must validate your business somewhat somewhat and as you said your staff really loves seeing those kinds of things. So, do you read most of the reviews that come in online about your business?
Bonnie Shearston: I do, I mean there's so many platform these days, it's hard to keep on top of all of them. But, I get notifications every time someone leaves something on Yelp or Google so I do try and read as much of them as I possibly can.
You know they are really important, especially in this day and age where people rely so heavily on that sort of media to make that decisions. And like I said, it's really good for boosting the staff morale and congratulating people and encouraging them in the right direction.
Steve Strauss: I'll read more about a quick review here. "This place is so good. My boyfriend had the fried egg sandwich and said it was the best he ever had. I had the Greek yogurt, with honey and pancakes – both were delicious. This place is located in a really cute area, service was really good and quick, our waiter was super friendly. I love the natural soap in the bathroom."
I mean right here, people really like everything you do. So that brings me to the next question which is “How did you decide where to grow your business and maintain clearly the quality that you have and the following that you have.” You’re in Australia and then you decide to open a business in Los Angeles. How did that decision come about and how did you do it effectively?
Bonnie Shearston: I suppose, as you already mentioned, Tom and I had opened 5 businesses over in Australia and they were all in Brisbane actually. And I think we wanted a new challenge and a new adventure and we were thinking about expanding somewhere else in Australia, initially. Maybe Sydney maybe Melbourne. But, then we thought if we were gonna uproot our lives and give something else a go, and why not do it in a whole other country. We’d love to open up something in London one day, we're both from London.
So, I think the excitement of trying a new country was really appealing. We had toyed around with the idea of going to Hong Kong Shanghai a couple of years ago, and something nearly came into flourishing there, but at the last minute we decided to pull out. And, Tom had always had his heart set on LA and I’d never really spend any time here.
So, he sent me over here for a month last year. I was helping a friend out with some projects over here and he told me to spend the whole month here and have a look around and get to know it and the last week of my month here I rang him and I said him I've asked from some leasing agents to show us around. Book a ticket, come out here, we’re gonna do it. So we did. We found a sight in July, signed the lease in August and opened in December. It's been a complete whirlwind. Very exciting at the same time.
Steve Strauss: So, for people who are not from California, can you tell us a little bit about Echo Park and Los Feliz – the neighborhood you're in and how you chose that location?
Bonnie Shearston: It's funny actually, I was here in 2015, I took myself off on a road trip for two weeks and spaced myself from LA before heading up the coast. And I happened to stay with a friend of mine in Echo Park and I remember very distinctively saying to him one day," I'd love to live here one day."
There was no prospect of anything “Pollen” on the horizon at that time. And then, when the leasing agents were showing us around, they were showing us new developments in downtown, some over in Culver City, some of these were foundations still in the ground, they hadn't even started the build yet. , we went for a little lunch break and after that they said that they just wanted to throw us a curveball, that there was already an offer on this building, so it wasn't available, but they just wanted to gauge our reaction to see if it was the sort of thing we'd be chasing.
So, we pulled up and stepped out of the car, he opened up the gates in front and Tom and I didn't even have to say anything to each other. We just looked at each other and I turned to the leasing agents and said, “How far along is this offer because this is exactly what we want.” When it comes to choosing a venue, Tom and I have a huge bank of different ideas and concepts and we'll draw on each individual one in relation to what the character of the building is in location at the time.
And immediately, we both knew that this was exactly what we wanted in a spot. It's in the middle of a residential area. It's very much a community there. The concept of Pollen…you know, the reason it's called Pollen is that the beehive is one of the most complex communities known to nature. And, so were very much trying to be the center of the community there and do what we can to give back to the community, but also be a very integral part of their day-to-day lives. So, it's very residential, it's very green and leafy compared to lots of parts of LA.
There's schools near us, there's houses all around us, we're a good mile and a half set back from Sunset Junction so it's pretty quiet where we are as well. And, it's home to one of most lethal roads in LA, I've just found out – Baxter Street. So, I'm sure the little businesses will familiarize themselves with the terraced roads there.
Steve Strauss: So, it's interesting that you did name the restaurant Pollen, as we were just talking about. I read or saw that you’ve done some work with local farmers, with regard to beehives and sustainability, is that something you take seriously? And, if so, can you expand on that a little bit?
Bonnie Shearston: Absolutely, as I’ve already mentioned, Pollen is about the community and as much as we can give back to the community as well. There's a lot of long term goals associated with sustainability. It's very difficult in this industry to open up a venue and immediately be “zero landfill” waste and minimal carbon footprint. Especially in a different country where we'll still trying to learn the different practices and procedures over here. But, we are very focused on giving back as well at Pollen, we've been working with a strong recycling program to make sure that we're on top of that. We have been working with a local farmer and were planning a lot more to come. We've got a composting program underway with him. And, we are going to be putting beehives out on his plot of land, which is a couple of miles from Pollen. Now, beehives are essential to our ecosystem, as I'm sure you know.
Steve Strauss: Right.
Bonnie Shearston: So, that's one way to give back to a piece of vacant, beautiful land here in Echo Park, but also cultivating our own honey from that and being able to sell it in the restaurant and use it in the restaurant will be wonderful.
Eventually, we'd love to grow our own vegetables there. We currently have our own herb garden at Pollen that we use. But, we don't have a huge amount of space there. For the numbers that we do, we'd love to expand that out to a piece of farmland as well. And other things that we're working towards, we've been speaking to a local church program in the community about donating our wasted pastries and sandwiches and things to feed the homeless program that they have going on.
Again, there's a lot of red tape involved with that, you'd think you'd be able to hand out beautiful croissants at the end of the day to someone a bit hard down on by the streets, but all the red tape involved in these sort of things does make it a bit difficult so we're speaking a local church program about their feed the homeless program and also about doing a suspended coffee program with a group of people that look after the local neighborhoods around us. So, there's a few things we're working towards and I'd love to have them all up and running immediately, right now. But, they take time, and got to make sure these things are done properly.
Steve Strauss: I love hearing all of that, and to me it's a little surprising that you have this whole farm-to-table thing going on. I'm up in Portland and farm-to-table is a big thing here. One wouldn't really think that's what you do in Los Angeles, so bravo to you.
Bonnie Shearston: Thank you, like I said there's a lot of challenges, to try to get it up and running and it's definitely not farm-to-table yet, but it is something that we're very much working towards.
Steve Strauss: So, opening a restaurant and wanting it to become a community hub is different than how other restaurantuers envision opening a restaurant. Why was that important to you – this idea of community?
Bonnie Shearston: I’ll very much say, it's not the attitude that we go into each venture with. Like I said to you, each concept that Tom and I have, this catalog of ideas we've accumulated over the years, they're all very, very different and some our businesses we opened up smack bang in the middle of the city. It's been a very different approach and how you operate day-to-day.
But, when we saw this spot and saw the community, we immediately drew on this concept of this “neighborhood, community, give back and be present for the community” idea. So, it was very much upon approach and finding the site that we decided to take this idea and grow.
Steve Strauss: Here's a review: "I've now been to Pollen a few times, and now I'm becoming a regular. The staff are all really sweet. The owner is really nice, too. [Laughs]
Bonnie Shearston: [Launghs] It must have been been when Tom was here.
Steve Strauss: The restaurant is in a cute neighborhood and parking has been easy every time I've been there. I plan on coming back and trying everything. I am obsessed."
Bonnie Shearston: Excellent.
Steve Strauss: I love hearing that. That said, there must have been challenges opening up a business in a different continent and then running two different businesses on two different continents. How did you do that and what were the challenges that you encountered and how did you overcome those?
As I previously mentioned, when Tom and I moved to Australia, we worked in Brisbane for at least a year, a year and a half even, before we opened our first venue, Canvas. We didn't have that luxury over here. We found the site, we knew there was a time constraint on it, we decided to jump right in and give it a go. Neither of us had ever lived here before, and so the challenges have been enormous.
Not only trying to get Pollen open and trying to get our heads around state and federal law and all the difference taxes and the employment laws, all the permits – you have permits for everything in this country – it's amazing. So, that's been enormously challenging and every day i'm still learning something new. We've been open for four months now and it's a massive learning process for us at the moment. In terms of operating across two different continents, as soon as Tom and I decided that we wanted to expand outside of Brisbane…we're very hands on operators, and we like to be very involved in our businesses. So, we were aware that it would distract from our concentration on having 5 businesses back in Australia. So, we’ve started to downgrade. We’ve now got two left in Brisbane and Tom is over there running those two and I’m flying over here as often as I can to try and help out with Pollen. We have a fantastic management team here who run the place for us so I’m very much here just overseeing and doing all the legalities, and like I said, trying to learn as much as I can about operating a small business in California. So, there’s a lot of to’ing and fro’ing at the moment, and it’s been quite challenging as well, but we’re making it work, I think.
Steve Strauss: Creating the right team, that must be critically for you, right?
Bonnie Shearston: Absolutely, as I mentioned, Tom and I have always been very hands-on operators and I’ve always filled the role of General Manager while we’ve opened up a venue and Tom’s always been very hands-on in service but then also back-of-house as we put all of our procedures and processes in place. And normally, we’ll do that for 6 months for a smaller venue up to 18 months as we build a team around us and then we feel comfortable to hand over the reigns to them. We’ve been very, very lucky with our staff in Australia, we’ve had very good staff retention and people stay with us for a long time and really helped us grow our businesses.
Over here, Tom and I aren’t allowed to actually operate the business. We can own it, but until we can become residents here in America we’re not allowed to physically be operating the business. So, it’s been interesting trying to build the team around us and try and get them to work in the way that we would if we were to be the operational managers of the venue. But, again we’ve been exceptionally lucky with our staff. We’ve got a great team at Pollen. All these reviews coming in, you can see that there’s compliments on our service, our managers, the chefs, everything. So, we’ve been really, really fortunate and we’ve got a great team holding it down for us here.
Steve Strauss: So, we are speaking to Bonnie Shearston, owner of Pollen Restaurant in Los Angeles . If you ever get to the Southland, you should definitely check it out. We’re running out of time here Bonnie, but before we go I gotta ask, “what is it that you enjoy the most about being an entrepreneur and what has surprised you the most about your journey? “
Bonnie Shearston: Surprised me? The entire thing. I wanted to be a sports teacher when I was younger. So, I’m not sure quite how I ended up here, but what have I enjoyed the most? For me, the awards are great and the press is great, and opening up a new venue…it’s extremely exciting everytime we do it. But, for me it’s about the people I work with and the regular customers… just building that report with them and I’ve made some lifelong friends from someone that popped in once and wanted to have a drink at my very first venue.
So, for me, it’s really about the people. I’m not sure what Tom’s response to that woulud be but for me, it’s definitely about the friends and regulars that we’ve made along the way and seeing how much they enjoy something that we put our blood, sweat and tears into.
Steve Strauss: You know as a new business in Los Angeles, it’s such a vast place, I grew up here with 10 million people. One of the great things about being in business these days is, the net does make things smaller and word-of-mouth can happen in a way online that it could never happen offline. Offline word-of-mouth is literally word-of-mouth. One person tells one person. But now, people can go online, write a review, make a comment, and a hundred or a thousand people hear about it. So, I would think that in the vastness of Los Angeles, with so many businesses there, you must benefit a lot from this kind of word of online word-of-mouth that you get from positive reviews.
Bonnie Shearston: Oh absolutely. It’s amazing how far people will travel for a brunch if it’s got a good review. We had a family come up from Malibu two weekends in a row for brunch because they’d seen on Yelp that we were LA’s new hot spot for brunch.
Steve Strauss: Now, tell people how long of a drive that is.
Bonnie Shearston: Um, I think it’s about two hours in rush hour. I think so. I haven’t made my venture yet myself, I hear it’s a long way.
Steve Strauss: It’s a schlep, for sure. Before we go, Bonnie, I just want to ask you one little question. Our show, “Post Some Love”, is sponsored by our friends at Bank of America and I’m just wondering…I know you’re a Bank of America customer, why’d you choose Bank of America when you moved to California?
Bonnie Shearston: They were actually the only bank that would take us. Not saying that they haven’t been absolutely wonderful to us, but when we first moved here trying to open up bank accounts to do simple things, say send money over here to be able to actually start the build, it was rather difficult to get anyone to open a bank account for us without social security numbers – which Tom and I don’t have not being American citizens. So, we did try a few different banks, Bank of America being one of the first, I will say that, but they were the ones that would take us on and they’ve been wonderful, and yes, I will be staying with them.
Steve Strauss: All right, see, that just proves what I know which is Bank of America is a great friend to small business and you’re a small business. Well, we’ve loved having you on the show today. Keep up the great work and if people want to know more about you and Tom and the Happy Fat Group, where should they go?
Bonnie Shearston: If they want to know a little bit more of what we do, they can head to our website, which is www.happyfat.com.au
Steve Strauss: Fantastic, thank you and keep up the great work.
Bonnie Shearston: Thank you so much.
Steve Strauss: Bank of America is committed to helping small business owners achieve lasting growth and is now asking everyone for their support in helping small businesses grow by asking them to “Post Some Love.” We know that positive online reviews help drive small business success. So, we’re encouraging everyone to do just that. Choose your favorite small businesses and write a positive online review. Bank of America does not endorsed or guarantee the perspective or advice or the products or services sold by any business referenced within this podcast. Copyright 2018 Bank of America Corporation.