Neil Perry takes up the challenge to revitalise David Jones’s food halls.
Neil Perry is worn out. “I’m sorry my voice is croaky,” he apologises. He has been working 18-hour days in his Rockpool Dining Group’s new restaurant, Jade Temple, in Sydney’s CBD. “I’ve been calling lunch and dinner for 14 services straight.” But it only takes a mention of his latest project for the pathologically indefatigable chef to regain his spark: he is reviving David Jones’ food halls.
Never mind late-night shopping, Australia’s iconic retailer now does negronis and chargrilled steaks. In a comprehensive transformation of the 179-year-old department store’s food business nationally, David Jones this week unveils its new food hall concept. The vision is to create a series of worldclass food destinations where the integration of service and retail is seamless and immersive. First up is Sydney’s Westfield Bondi Junction.
Eat a steak beside the open kitchen, discuss the meat with the on-site butcher and then buy the exact cut from the same producer to take home. And, if that isn’t enough, you can buy the butcher’s block, the apron and the knife.
Not for sale, but certainly part of the $100 million investment over three years, is another iconic Australian, Perry. Like many Aussies, the 60-year-old chef has fond childhood memories of DJS.
“I remember coming to town in the late 1960s and walking through the David Jones Foodhall,” he says. “I’d never seen such highly polished, beautiful, big apples or such an amazing array of fish. It was the pre-eminent food experience in the country.”
But the years have seen this food icon lose some of its magic. Australia has struggled to keep up with the likes of La Grande Epicerie in Paris, Eataly across the United States, and La Place in the Netherlands and elsewhere. When South African retailer Woolworths Holdings acquired David Jones in 2014, a revitalisation of the food retail and service offering, patterned after these high-end global shopping experiences, became a priority.
The overhaul is spearheaded by CEO John Dixon. Before taking on the top job at David Jones in January last year, Dixon spent almost two decades at Marks & Spencer in the UK, and the success of its market-leading food department is something he hopes to replicate.
“After the acquisition of David Jones we realised there was a huge gap at the top end of the market,” says Pieter de Wet, group executive for food at David Jones. “We looked all over the world at premium food retailers and took the best of those as inspiration.”
The revamp of the Bondi Junction food hall is the first of at least four upgrades to David Jones nationally and will include a $200 million refurbishment of the entire Elizabeth Street flagship store in Sydney (due to be completed in 2019).
While the investment is large, de Wet is convinced the undertaking will be sustainable and profitable. “Australians have high-quality expectations and global tastes,” he says. “Research shows that our customers want to be connected to the experts and provedores, see their food prepared and touch and try the food they are buying.”
Teaming up with Perry seemed natural. “He believes in sustainability, provenance and quality, and that is what we are building our food business on,” says de Wet.
Provenance is an often-used modern buzzword, but it has been part of Perry’s life since he was a child catching fish with his father in Blakehurst, NSW.
As head chef at Barrenjoey House in 1983, Perry named suppliers on the menu. “I’m not sure if anyone else in Australia was doing that,” he says.
It’s a commitment that de Wet finds appealing. “Neil has put David Jones in touch with a number of small producers who he believes create the best produce.”
The retailer plans to incorporate 70 per cent of its food products under a David Jones label over the next five years, “by finding the best local artisanal brands and those from across the world,” says de Wet.
“We have a team of more than 60 food buyers, product developers and technologists who together have sourced and created a comprehensive range under our brand.” The range includes pre-cut vegetables, marinated meat and pasta sauces. David Jones has declined to name the producers beyond Cape Grim.
It’s easy to assume that David Jones will be stocking all-australian produce. Not necessarily, says de Wet. “[But] the vast majority of what we sell will be Australian. When we can’t find the best product locally, we will search for the best across the world.”
Australia’s own Cobram Estate has amassed awards in New York for its outstanding extra virgin olive oils, yet the David Jones-branded extra virgin olive oil is from Italy. Long-time supplier to Perry and seafood expert, John Susman, doesn’t see importing from overseas as a problem. He says it’s important to have global benchmarking when it comes to food.
“It is not good enough to simply, ‘buy Australian,’ through blind commitment to the flag,” he says. “If our producers want to stand on the world stage and proclaim they are best in class, then they need to be able to compete on that basis.”
Like the produce it sells, as DJS enters the global stage, yet another Australian is on the cusp of international success.