Gorilla Cafe culture

When you dine out, what is more important: food or ambience?

If you answered ‘both’, you agree with Ad Man Rory Sutherland in his TED Talk, Perspective is everything:

There is no healthy distinction between the value you create by cooking the food and the value you create by sweeping the floor. One of them creates the primary product – the thing we think we’re paying for – the other creates a context within which we can enjoy and appreciate that product. The idea that one of them should actually have priority over the other is fundamentally wrong.

Brunswick Cafe John Gorilla is one eatery that understands the subtle relationship between these two priorities; the interplay of tangible values (high-quality food and drink) and intangibles (respect, mutuality, novelty and familiarity). Getting all this right isn’t just a happy accident according to owner and friend, Joanna Wilson.

Opened in 2012, John Gorilla quickly established itself as a good place to be, with a leading menu, friendly service and exceptional decor. However, behind every seemingly effortless achievement is systematic planning. Even the Cafe’s name adds to the brand: the poignant tale of an unfortunate primate reared and ‘civilised’ by a zealous scientist last century.

Crowd funding

Struggling to open the doors last year, Joanna’s husband, Nic Kocher, suggested they turn to crowdfunding (through Pozible). “I wasn’t convinced,” Joanna states bluntly. They set the target for $3K. It was a marketing and publicity coup. John Gorilla was the first Australian Cafe to try it. They more than doubled their target, helping it over the line financially and boosting opening crowds. “The amazing response surprised me,” Joanna says, “but in hindsight I suppose it shouldn’t have.” Crowdfunding unleashed a latent community desire to connect with, and share an ‘ownership’ of the place. As Joanna presciently said at the time, “a cafe provides the stage for us to play out community.”

Staff are part of that community. John Gorilla’s ‘people systems’ cover all aspects of employment, from recruitment to on-the-job training. “All my staff are carefully selected for their ability to laugh,” Joanna says, “to work cohesively and to provide great service and atmosphere.” Each recruit is issued a manual outlining the kitchen and floor systems prior to a trial shift. On trial, a senior staff member imparts the crucial on-the-job knowledge needed, watching carefully for attitudinal signs that they’re ‘in the right place’. Once placed, Joanna and senior staff coach for performance, offering timely corrections. Staff members often work with Joanna for a long time and she feels comfortable knowing her Cafe is in good hands.


Another system Joanna introduced is designed to break down traditional enmity between the ‘kitchen’ and the ‘floor’. “I’d always wanted to rotate staff between kitchen and floor,” she says, ”setting up my own cafe gave me the chance to do that.” In practise, staff become aware of the differences between the two systems and in doing so internalise the one goal – to produce the best dining experience.

At John Gorilla the ground rules for mutuality are clear: hospitality is about respect – give and take. This means Joanna, on occasion, has needed to rearticulate John Gorilla’s values to staff and customers. If staff or customers have trouble with understanding what high-quality food and respect mean then Joanna helps them to see the mismatch: John Gorilla isn’t the place for them. It’s rare but unavoidable and as true for the broader culture as for a Cafe – cultural values change over time and don’t always suit the individual.

“I don’t necessarily agree with ‘the customer is always right’ theory of business,” says Joanna as, without warning, she spirits off to make sure a newly arrived diner has water. Maybe ‘the customer isn’t always in the right place’ is more accurate.

Urban Spoon fed

Adding to the mix and making running a cafe challenging in new ways is the rise of online review website Urban Spoon. When many of your brand values are intangible, they can be abstracted from time and place – then unreasonably distorted. Getting the ‘patron’s experience’ right 100% of the time is difficult. If your experience isn’t what you expected you may be more comfortable complaining about it anonymously online than telling management. John Gorilla’s been on the end of ill-informed criticism.

The problem is that unsubstantiated online complaints can wreck a business. It turns the hospitality industry into a zero-sum game. It’s not. People’s livelihoods are at stake. Our cultural life is improved by a strong hospitality industry. The better our Cafes and meeting places, the better our lives.

I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe it’s incumbent on the industry to improve it’s feedback processes so customers feel safer talking to management. Maybe unhappy diners should be braver and not hide behind anonymity. You need guts to get into the business. Next time a meal’s not up to your standards – be brave, respectfully tell them what you expected. You might be surprised.

So why does Joanna do it? One clue is the delight she finds in her customer’s stories. As Joanna said last year:

In my 24 years in the hospitality industry I have met people from all walks of life. It has been my privilege to witness some very profound and intimate human moments. I think owning cafes may just be a front for me to satisfy my curiosity in people and their glorious stories.

Almost one year of success later, it’s truer than ever.