From humble beginnings as a breakfast cafe 21 years ago, award-winning modern Australian restaurant Relish on Addison has ensured its long-running success through a fusion of hard work, fresh quality produce and a loyal Shellharbour clientele.
Owners Tom and Maria Laws worked around the world before moving to Shellharbour to open the much-loved Shellharbour Village restaurant.
The pair came with a wealth of experience: Tom completed his chef’s apprenticeship in a small French restaurant in Tahmoor before moving to Queensland and meeting English-born Maria, who was backpacking at the time.
Between them, their careers have taken them from the Marriott International Hotel in London and Sydney, through to Disneyland in Paris and the Renaissance in Circular Quay. Tom also worked at Balmoral Beach at Bathers Pavilion under veteran chef Serge Dansereau.
By 2002, with a six-month-old daughter in tow, the couple decided to settle down in Shellharbour, where Tom’s mother had retired.
“Mum saw a little Mexican restaurant for sale and we went down, had a look at it and made an offer and six months later, they phoned up and accepted our offer and we thought well, let’s do this,” Tom said.
“We’d always wanted to open a restaurant and it was obviously a sea change and lifestyle decision.
“Relish has evolved over the years from more of a breakfast cafe to what it is now.”
Maria said for the first eight years it was a 50-seat premise located further up Addison Street.
“We wanted a bigger restaurant, so our landlord kept trying to coax us into moving into his new building, so eventually we said yes and we moved down to the current building,” she said.
However, Tom said some things hadn’t changed.
“There’s certain items on the menu that have remained,” he said.
“For instance, the mushroom baby spinach risotto cakes and the citrus tart, they’re two dishes I’ve kept on the menu and they’re a favourite.”
As customers became more educated due to the popularity of TV cooking shows, the food has shifted.
“We’ve got kingfish sashimi on at the moment and that’s moving, and that wouldn’t have moved a few years ago,” Tom said.
“People are more educated with food and they’re a little bit more willing to try more than what they did previously.”
He said while it hadn’t always been rosy, its longevity had lied in consistently good, fresh quality produce through a close relationship with suppliers and generations of well-trained apprentices and staff.
“All the prawns, the squid, the fish, it’s all fresh produce,” he said.
“These days, people know their food.
“When people go out to eat, they’re spending the money, so you’ve got to be fair, and you’ve got to be true to what you’re putting on the plate.
“Our motto is: Would we happily pay that money for that? And you’ve got to have that excitement with the food.”
Tom admitted it was trends, subscribing to Gourmet magazine, eating out and tapping into a network of former apprentice chefs around Australia and overseas that helped inspire his menus.
“We like to go to Sydney once a month and try out new restaurants and see what’s happening in the industry,” he said.
“It’s good to expose yourself to new and different restaurants and follow different chefs as well.
“I’ve got apprentices I’m still in contact with at places like NOMAD in Melbourne, he’s executive chef down there.”
Though, Maria admitted some of Tom’s ideas didn’t always make the menu.
“I say to Maria ‘I want to do this’ or ‘I want to do that’ and she says ‘We can’t do that at Relish, you go and open another restaurant if you want to do that’,” Tom said.
“So Maria will put me in my place,” he said, laughing.
However, Maria said they did often experiment with the lunch specials.
“People are very honest and open with us and they tell us if they’re not happy with something or they didn’t like this, or they’d prefer to see that – and we listen,” she said.
“I don’t have the ego that I used to,” Tom said.
“Your loyal customers are your bread and butter, so you need to listen to them.”
Maria said those local and regular customers, who made up 90 per cent of their clientele, were “the ones that kept us going” through their toughest periods, like COVID.
“We have people that come in once or twice a week, if not more – we have certain people on certain days,” Maria said.
“We know their name, we know their life, we know their kids, we’ve done their christenings, we’ve done their weddings.
“So we ask them what they would like to see on a menu.”
That customer focus and consistency across staff training through to food has led to numerous awards, including Restaurant and Catering Association, Good Food Guide and Entertainment Book awards.
As their 18 and 22-year-old daughters are not interested in taking over the business, the couple admitted there would come a point where they would have to sell.
“It’s a sacrifice and it’s not the lifestyle they want,” Tom said.
“But we still love going to work every day, so while we’ve still got that energy, we’ll continue.”