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Tracy Keeley, Award-Winning Café Whisperer

Nina Gbor 16 December 2018

Award-winning entrepreneur, Tracy Keeley. Photography by Peta Rudd.

We’re familiar with the concept of giving a house a makeover, giving our wardrobes a makeover and even pimping our rides. But it’s not every day you come across someone with the fortitude to take an ordinary restaurant to supernova levels. Award-winning restaurateur, Tracy Keeley has transformed BOOKPLATE and the Pollen cafés located at National Library of Australia and Australian National Botanical Gardens respectively, into destination cafés.

Unsurprisingly, Tracy Keeley was named Canberra Women in Business’ 2018 Business Woman of the Year. A well-deserved award for someone who managed to bring BOOKPLATE back into the black, generating a 960 per cent uplift in revenue within the first 12 months of acquisition, and has continued to achieve year-on-year profit. Subsequently, it has become an award-winning café. And so also has Pollen café.

I spoke to Tracy Keeley about her career and system for creating this business magic.

RA: What was your career, prior to 2014 when you took over BOOKPLATE?

TK: I spent my twenties and thirties as a Primary School Teacher, which fulfilled my desires at the time. After two decades as an educator, I was ready for a new challenge and as I liked both food and people I though Hospitality would be a great fit. My first café was in the Department of Environment and after a short break to recharge my batteries and further my studies, I took over BOOKPLATE.

Photography by Ashley St George.

Photography by Ashley St George.

RA: What instigated the takeover of BOOKPLATE and where did the skills, knowledge and vision to change it come from?

TK: The tender became available at a time when I was ready to forge ahead with a project on my own. My personal circumstances had changed and for the first time, I had no one else to rely on or hold me back – I was ready to take control, become truly interdependent and self-reliant.

The skills I developed from my time running the café at The Department of Environment and my recent Masters’ Degree of Human Resource Management certainly equipped me with the foundations to take on BOOKPLATE. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the phone call advising me that the previous operator had gone into liquidation.

There was no longer the option to simply mimic what had been done in the past as it clearly didn’t work. I needed to develop my own vision to ensure its success. I focused on the immense potential of such a grand building with historic significance and stunning views. The business needed to be brought back to life and it was my goal to do so in a way that paid homage to the historic and social importance of not only the NLA but also the wider Parliament House Vista Area. We added a fresh interior and took the time to consider all the finer details: hand tossed porcelain, an in-house florist and a new food concept.

Photography by Ashley St George.

RA: What is the one measurable or visible result of taking BOOKPLATE and Pollen cafés from where they were before takeover, to what they are now?

TK: Regular patronage, from locals and interstate visitors, is the key indicator of success. Both Pollen and BOOKPLATE are ‘destination cafés’, people rarely walk by and think ‘I might stop here for lunch’, rather they opt to travel to the location for the purpose of dining. To have a constant flow of patrons during opening hours is a testament to the success and reputation of both cafés.

Photography by Ashley St George.

Photography by Ashley St George.

RA: What was the secret sauce/recipe for taking a café in the red to being in the black in the first 12 months? What are some of the practical things you did to make change happen?

TK: I am a big believer in ‘backing yourself’ and indeed this was the underlying factor which was going to determine if BOOKPLATE would be a success. I took a step back, assessed the situation and asked myself the following three questions:

  • What are my strengths?
  • How do I work best?
  • What are my core values?

By answering these three questions and staying true to my responses, BOOKPLATE had no option but to succeed.

RA: What’s your advice for anyone who wants to replicate the same type of transformative business magic in the restaurant or any other industry?

TK: Back yourself, even in the face of adversity. Believe in your own abilities, regardless of the circumstances. It’s a challenging endeavour, this concept of self-assuredness in business, but what I have learned is that reaching a point where one can back themselves is all about planning, not luck. Creating the right conditions is a safe bet towards achieving a successful outcome. Being able to critically assess your own abilities against the challenges at hand minimises the risk of failure and bolsters self-confidence. And in my experience, I have found that the key to doing this is understanding my strengths and finding the right opportunity to capitalise on them in a setting that meets my core values.

Photography by Ashley St George.

See BOOKPLATE for yourself here and Pollen here.


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