Mecca Mate Shoutout No. 3: Son of Frank's Anthony Canturi

Tue 3 September, 2019

Son of Frank, the Italian inspired all-day cafe eatery on Victoria St in Darlinghurst, is just shy of its one year anniversary. Any cafe owner will tell you that the first year of operation is exhilarating, but inevitably it’s a bit shaky and terrifying, too.

By the time opening day comes around you're already exhausted. You’ve spent months working round the clock directing tradespeople, navigating council regulations, hiring staff and juggling finances. Suddenly customers start trickling in, and for the first time your team has a chance to see if they can actually work well together. And all the while, you’re acutely aware that each new face walking through the door may either become your next regular, or they might return to their office and tell their co-workers “don’t bother with the new place.” It's like trying to build a ship while already at sea.

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Anthony Canturi was 25 years old when he decided to build and captain Son of Frank alongside his younger brother, Johnno. Their vision was nothing if not audacious: a cafe with a full kitchen, open seven days, plus dinners five nights per week. Despite never having run a kitchen, let alone a business by themselves, they put their heads down and within a couple of months they had a small army of regulars raving about them. It was one of the most impressive openings we’ve seen in years.

Watching from the sidelines, we’ve been blown away by what the Canturi brothers have achieved in such a short space of time. They work incredibly hard with a stoic self-sufficiency, and they’ve managed to negotiate a nightmare of council bureaucracy with a maturity and patience beyond their years. Curious as to how they managed to accrue so much ability in so few years, I sat down with Anthony to get the back story .

“We’ve always had businesses in our family.” Anthony explained to me. The Canturi brothers are second generation Italian Australians, whose nonna and nonno immigrated from the south of Italy in the postwar migration wave. They ended up in the Sutherland Shire and promptly began to build a life and family. “My nonno’s first business was in Kurnell. A fruit shop. That was how he started, but he's incredibly hard working and has now had a string of successful business ventures. He’s 74 and he can’t retire. He’s crazy.”

While working as a bartender at the Beresford in his early 20s, Anthony became good mates with a manager who was planning to open his own bar in Cronulla. Anthony decided to go in on the project. “It was a really good opportunity for me to kind of tag along and see the process of building up the idea and everything that goes along with it – of a strip job, then a rebuild, then opening something brand new.” Anthony eventually sold his share of the business, deciding it was time to continue his hospitality education elsewhere. He got a job at Eau de Vie, the classy and boldly creative speakeasy-style cocktail bar that blew the roof off Sydney’s cocktail game back in 2010 when it first opened. Anthony recalls this experience with typical humility: “it was really good to work in such a high volume, well-functioning bar.”

It wasn’t long before Anthony was itching to open another shop. While Anthony was learning the ins and outs of running a bar, his younger brother Johnno had immersed himself in the coffee game. Johnno learned to burn through kilos at a frenetic pace at the Cronulla institution ‘Grind’, and at the multi-roaster cafe ‘The Laneway’, he gained exposure to a multitude of roasters, roast profiles and and brewing methods.

On a trip to Melbourne, Anthony found inspiration in the all-day cafes that provided locals with a place to enjoy themselves and find sustenance from morning until night – “[spaces] where you can go at any time.” When Frank, who always kept one eye on the commercial lease market, showed his son the Victoria St site, Anthony decided it was time to go for it.

With the help of Dad, Anthony and Johnno transformed the abandoned shop (it was “a shithole” Anthony assured me) into a light and airy space with plants hanging against whitewashed walls.

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The first few months were a challenge. While Johnno was crushing the coffee side of things, the kitchen was a struggle. They couldn’t find a chef who they clicked with, and not being able to jump on the pans himself just added to the pressure. “There were definitely a couple of days where I was in the kitchen, head in hands... If they [the chef] leave, you’re screwed in so many different ways.” Eventually they hired Max, a talented and enthusiastic chef who embraced their vision creating Italian-inspired all-day fare.

Whenever I visit Son of Frank, I’m struck by how lovely the atmosphere is. The team is always smiling, relaxed and attentive. What is Anthony doing to nurture this?

For Anthony, treating his staff with respect and dignity is the key. And for the kitchen, this begins with not overworking his staff: “There’s a culture of overworking chefs with 60-70 hour weeks. We keep our chefs on a 40 hours max roster, which they really like, and we make sure that everyone gets their two days off. The biggest thing is not fucking your staff over in the kitchen.”

But what about managing the day-to-day disagreements? Menu items that need improvement, or staff that need a nudge in the right direction? Anthony’s answer to this question blew me away: “Having an honest approach is good. I want to talk to the team as if we’re at the pub. You’re both invested in the job. You’re both trying to put a dish out that somebody’s gonna buy. Just having humility and realising that they’re doing their best and you’re trying to do your best and having simply honest discussion as opposed to “I want this, or I want that”. It’s probably why I enjoy hospitality – I get have these conversations all the time. You get a good grasp of how to communicate with people.”

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It’s one thing to aspire to be thoughtful while navigating sensitive workplace situations, but it’s another to pull it off while you’re also worrying about how you’re going to pay wages, whether you’ll find that new staff member in time, and then guess what? A notification on your phone announces that some nameless person just left you a one star review with no comment on Google. Anthony feels all these stresses, but he’s learning to be smart and to manage them before they make the better of him.

I finished our chat with a question that I already knew the answer to, though I wanted to hear how Anthony processed it. Is all that stress, the crazy hours, the insecurity, is it all worth it? Anthony’s eyes lit up. “Of course. At the end of the day I still love the job. I love going to work and solving the problems even though some of them… stress you out a lot. When you put all of that effort in and someone comes in and has a good experience, it's such a good feeling. It’s also a stress reliever, when you’ve had a killer day and everyone has left super happy.”

We know the feeling. It’s getting to work with inspirational folk like Anthony and Johnno that gets us out of bed in the morning, too.


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