'Gutted': Restaurants closed as George Calombaris' food empire collapses
George Calombaris' ailing food empire came crashing down on Monday with restaurants closed, administrators appointed and the celebrity chef's Toorak mansion put on the market.
Almost all of the 18 venues operated by Made Establishment, including its flagship fine-dining restaurants and Jimmy Grants souvlaki stores, have ceased trading, but the Yo-Chi frozen yoghurt chain will continue to operate.
Calombaris said he was "gutted" by what had happened to his business and apologised to his family, friends, staff - 400 of whom will lose their jobs - and customers.
"The last few months have been the most challenging I have ever faced," he said in a statement on Instagram.
"I am so sorry all our collective efforts have not proved to be enough. I'm gutted that it's come to this."
KordaMentha were appointed as voluntary administrators at a crisis meeting involving the business' directors on Monday afternoon.
The administrators cited difficult trading conditions – in the wake of the company being rocked by a major underpayment scandal – as a reason for the collapse of the business.
Employees will be paid all entitlements owed, the administrators said.
The gates outside the Jimmy Grants outlet in Fitzroy - one of seven across Melbourne - were padlocked on Monday.
Devastated chef Matt Wilkinson said he would fight to keep the doors of Crofter Dining in Brunswick open after relaunching on the site of the former Hellenic Republic just last month.
"To be honest, I feel like I’ve been winded, like I've been punched in the gut by the big kid at school," Wilkinson said.
Earlier on Monday, a sign asking for "expressions of interest" was put up in front of Calombaris' multimillion-dollar Toorak mansion.
Sources said the former MasterChef star was thinking about relocating to Greece after the insolvency process is completed.
Calombaris paid $4.75 million for the five-bedroom home in McMaster Court at the height of his fame in 2013.
The decision to sell the family house comes after he listed his Safety Beach weekender on the Mornington Peninsula for sale last year. His property portfolio also includes a $2.2 million home in Arthurs Seat on the peninsula.
"To be honest, I feel like I’ve been winded, like I've been punched in the gut by the big kid at school." — Chef Matt Wilkinson
In recent months, Made Establishment had embarked on a major rebranding exercise as Calombaris stepped back as the figurehead of four high-profile venues within the group.
It came after the restaurant group was ordered to make a large contrition payment as part of an unprecedented deal with the Fair Work Ombudsman, for underpaying $7.83 million in wages to 515 current and former employees. All former and current staff were reimbursed.
In December, Hellenic Hotel in Williamstown was relaunched as Hotel Argentina, while Hellenic Kew transformed into an Italian restaurant, Vita.
Craig Shepard from KordaMentha said the rebranding was unable to turn the business around "despite strong reviews".
"Other factors were generally difficult trading conditions in the hospitality industry in recent years due to the expansion of the on-demand economy via services such as UberEats and Deliveroo, increasing costs, fierce industry competition and changes in consumer tastes to favour cheaper mid-tier dining options," Mr Shepard said in a statement.
Mr Shepard said the administrators would seek alternative operators for the venues.
If his offer is accepted, Wilkinson hopes he can reopen Crofter Dining as early as Friday.
He intends to close the doors for several days to allow for liquor licences and other administration to be transferred.
Wilkinson has told his staff he intends to hire them back. In the meantime, he has secured them work at friends' businesses.
"I've worked so hard to get it this far. I haven’t seen my kids for the last month, or had a day off since December 30. I'm not giving up without a fight," he said.
Hellenic Brighton was the last business still under Calombaris' creative control.
Calombaris' flagship fine dining establishment, Press Club, became Elektra Dining in October under star chef Reuben Davis. When contacted for comment on Monday, Davis said he could not say if he had plans to make an offer.
Simon Hartley, the owner of CBD stalwart Becco, was recruited in January to manage Made's former Hellenic Kew, now called Vita Italian.
He considered the 200 seat premises a large risk to investors in the current restaurant climate.
"It’s such a big space, it’s such a big risk at a time like this," Hartley said.
"I’ve still really enjoyed the process of working [at Vita], and I’m hoping to offer employment to some of the team."
Carlton pub, The Lincoln, threw open its doors on Monday morning for staff from all Made venues to meet and commiserate over beers.
Multimillionaire Radek Sali, the former chief executive of Swisse vitamins, made an ill-fated foray into the hospitality industry when he took a major stake in Calombaris' restaurants in 2016. However, within months a string of payroll discrepancies were identified and the Fair Work Ombudsman opened a major investigation.
Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Luke Hilakari called on Calombaris to ensure all workers were paid their full wages and entitlements.
"This will have the greatest impact on temporary visa holders, and those in insecure work," he said.
Source: The Age