Red Gum BBQ is a destination restaurant, in the popular suburb of Red Hill on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.
Started almost two years ago by couple Martin and Melissa Goffin, it brings a taste of the American South to this thriving community.
The flavours are proving popular with locals and tourists alike.
“We get lots of visitors on the weekends from Melbourne and all around Victoria, and sometimes international guests too,” says Melissa, taking a pause from welcoming her dinner guests.
“We‘re really wild and busy,” she adds.
In the pits, the staff is checking smokers filled with brisket, pork ribs, and chicken.
The meats have been cooking slowly since early morning over Red Gum coals.
Martin is the enthusiastic BBQ pitmaster, while Melissa draws heavily on her Southern USA heritage designing salads and side plates.
“The business today is really exciting, and we’ve grown enormously since we opened here in 2016,” Melissa adds.
A Mechanic Workshop Transformed
Red Gum’s open-plan seating area is scattered with timber bench tables for communal dining, and their attention to detail is obvious.
Bunches of dried flowers hang high above and wall tables are stocked with BBQ sauces and recipe books.
Martin and Melissa have painstakingly transformed their site (a former mechanic workshop) using recycled materials, creating their feature light fittings with driftwood collected from a nearby beach.
“We did all the painting and Martin cut trenches and built tables and pulled out nails, then friends came and joined us and we all got stuck in and built this together,” Melissa explains.
“And thankfully guests followed, and we were able to continue to pay our mortgage,” she says laughing.
The recipe for a fiery business
Creating their own BBQ business was a leap of faith for the former English teacher and local government worker.
The pair started with no financial backing.
Melissa explains: “When we told friends we wanted to open a restaurant they were like, ‘pump the brakes’.
“They asked if either of us had ever worked in hospitality, and Martin said ‘no but I’m keen’!
“Then they asked if we had lots of money, and Martin said ‘no, we’ve got no money’.
“And they asked if we had a wealthy family? Once again, no!
“So what they said is: before you get yourself into debt, start small, so we did!” Martin adds.
While they both held onto permanent posts, Martin began their fledgling business in 2013 part-time, carting their Texan import smoker ‘Big Red’ to local events and running weekend pop ups at Commonfolk, a café in nearby Mornington.
“The owner Sam didn’t know us but he believed in the vision of what we wanted to do, and we’ve run with it ever since,” Martin explains.
“It still gives me goosebumps,” says Melissa.
“For us, it was ‘yeah this is it, this is what we want to recreate in our own place’ and we just feel so fortunate that we have come here and done that.”
“The business has changed our lives for the better in so many ways.”
A Business Plan Going Up In Smoke
Martin and Melissa agree the major benefit is having more time to spend with their young children, although they admit managing the business has meant overcoming many financial challenges.
“Initially, we were physically and financially struggling under the weight of that, and it became close to time to walk away, which was going to be a devastating choice,” Melissa says.
“Martin had spent so much time and effort and energy, tears and blood and sweat (to get the business going) and he just loves cooking BBQ, so it was going to be really sad to leave”.
The couple gradually turned the business around, after seeking advice from a financial expert who identified key cash-flow problems.
“Over many months she took apart our finances and workflow,” Melissa explains.
“We learned the business was not profitable in the way we were doing it and everything we had done was making a loss.”
Martin adds: “So we made lots of changes and re-imagined how we were delivering our food, changed price points, and negotiated with suppliers, and began to understand the business in a much better way.”
The smoked meats are sold by weight, and Martin and Melissa choose local grass-fed beef, leading them to achieve B Corp certification based on ethical business principles.
The ethical recognition is just one of the driving forces bringing new customers to the restaurant.
“Once you’ve tasted BBQ you can’t go back,” Martin says.
“Cooking it low over a fire really brings out the best in it and it’ll melt in your mouth.
“We start at 6 am every day and keep going until we’re done, and it’s still a labor of love really”.
“The beauty is seeing happy customers walk out the door and go ‘wow that was amazing I loved the food, everything tasted wonderful’,” Melissa adds with a smile.
Watch this story at the top of the page, or catch the full episode on SBS On Demand.