Cultural Hero

Michael Gebran and Karen Martini-Hero
Michael Gebran (left) and Karen Martini of Hero.

HospitalityM director and founder Michael Gebran knows a thing or two about working with cultural institutions. He shares his journey about opening a high-profile restaurant inside a Melbourne icon. By Lynne Testoni

New company HospitalityM has kicked a few goals right from the start. Founders Michael Gebran and Karen Martini won their first tender when they were awarded the catering contract inside Melbourne’s newly revamped museum of screen culture, part of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in October 2019. Located in Federation Square, the company is already gaining plaudits and praise as the team’s signature restaurant Hero draws diners back to the CBD. It’s been a tough year, but Gebran says their team has risen to the challenge to deliver something special and different in a cultural civic space.

Tell us about your role within HospitalityM and how the company works.

I’m the director and founder of HospitalityM, alongside chef Karen Martini and Karen’s husband Michael Sapountsis. We were awarded the contract by ACMI in October 2019 and that’s when the journey began. We wanted to elevate food and beverage in this space rather than being a standard large corporate caterer. It was about being a hands-on boutique operator, and delivering the food ethos that we love with a local service-orientated experience. So that’s how Hero started.

How does the relationship work with ACMI?

It’s definitely been a strategic partnership. We worked alongside ACMI the whole way through this process and in every area—not just Hero—but in all food and beverage areas within the space. We’ve got a cinema bar upstairs where you can grab popcorn that’s popped daily, or choc-tops that we make in-house. And downstairs in the retail shop we have a cafe offer, so you can get daily fresh baguettes, daily salads, and coffee down there. And then there are all the event spaces within ACMI. 

So how hard is it to set up something like this in a public space?

I came from a hospitality organisation where I used to create and do development tenders in organisations such as the Australian War Memorial, Sydney Opera House and Botanic Garden. So I’ve had experience in understanding cultural spaces. But from the client side there’s a lot of risk in choosing a small operator. We needed a client who was bold enough to look at a startup. Despite the experience that we all had, there’s criteria involved in any museum or civic space, such as a minimum number of years of financial records, a sustainability plan and HACCP [certification]. ACMI and ACMI’s board were willing to take the risk and go with a startup, which is incredible because what we’ve been able to deliver is different to any other space that I have done. They’ve given us autonomy to create something beautiful. In the middle of a pandemic, we’re busy and bringing people into the square and the CBD. 

Tell us about the food at Hero.

We’re serving an incredible product by Karen Martini. She’s here every day working day and night with us on the pans and she’s delivering 100 per cent local Victorian food too. Karen and I really wanted to deliver something that the city can be proud of—creating something in the heart of the CBD, that’s 100 per cent Victorian. People have really supported us. Last year was tough, and there are challenges ahead with the shortage of staffing, but we’re here, we’re open and it’s incredible. It is a beautiful story because of the suppliers we are supporting. Karen has reworked all of her dishes so we could support local producers. 

Inside Hero, designed by Chris Connell.

That’s fantastic. And were they excited to be part of Hero, because they could see what you want to do here?

Absolutely. There were a few challenges and nobody was prepared to give us any form of credit. It was all COD for the first month or two. All the risk was on us to make sure that we could deliver. We were very lucky though that we have a beautiful venue designed by Chris Connell, we have a beautiful menu designed by Karen and we have really great people working with us to deliver an incredible experience.  

Do you think it’s rewriting what you can do in public spaces or public buildings?

I’ve seen a lot of organisations talk about wanting to be different to stand out, but there are limitations because of the risk. I think what Karen and I have been able to do is to really define what you can deliver in a cultural space. Last Tuesday we had 97 booked for dinner. And it was Tuesday night in the middle of the CBD. So it’s amazing to see the city has started to open up again. It’s not where it needs to be because we are not having the event enquiries that we thought we would and we are not getting as much traffic during the day, but we are definitely bringing locals back to the square, and the CBD. 

What would you tell your younger self, and what do you tell your apprentices when they start?

I’ve worked for many organisations over the years. And I’ve given 110 per cent. I’ve always tried to make sure that I treat any business like it was my own. That had its positives and negatives. You give too much sometimes and then it’s expected that you have to continue to give that. I’ve learned that it’s about fostering a positive culture, about treating people fair and really respecting the people that work with you. Your staff make your business. We’ve tried to foster a positive environment, ensuring all the staff are looked after. We would never want to take advantage of anybody, or make anybody feel that that we weren’t grateful for what they do. There are people that are working for us that have worked with me, Karen or Michael for years. It shows that, no matter how busy or how hard it is, or how short we are on staff, they still have our back. That’s a nice thing and that comes from a positive culture.