Cambus Wallace

At Nobby’s Beach, in a small and vibrant slice of the Gold Coast bar and restaurant scene is a large, wooden double-door. In front of the closed doors are a red carpet, a stand with a menu and two planters. The set-up is intriguing and strange – what’s behind the closed doors?

StartUp Creative spoke to Dave and Nick, two of the charismatic owners behind Cambus Wallace, uncovering their success story and their nautical-themed bar named after Gold Coast naval history.

What’s your ‘war story’?

D: All of us boys had done a fair bit of travelling.

N: All around the world, really.

D: Yeah and a few of us had been to Sydney and seen that small bar revolution taking off there. It had been around in Melbourne for a while and Brisbane had a few. So we knew it would take off here – because it was really needed. It all started with a Facebook thread, just messaging each other about having no decent place to hang out.

How many of you are there?

D: There were five of us, but between us we didn’t have enough funds. Then someone’s parents came in, and then a few silent partners. So there are eleven owners. (Laughter.) Yeah, we broke the rules – got into business with our friends and family, got in way over our heads and really put ourselves in the deep end. The deepest. (More laughter.)

So your risk was pretty high?

N: (Laughter.) Shit yes! Dave was the only one with hospitality experience.

Did you all build this bar yourself?

N: Pretty much everything was built by someone we knew. Dan, one of the owners, is a chippie and he started the fit-out, but then got a job in Sydney that was actually paying. So one of our other mates came and helped out. Sound and lighting was done by someone else, a friend’s dad did the electrics and project managed the fit-out. Then yet another mate did furniture design. So it was a matter of getting people we knew involved. Everyone was eventually paid, but there was a lot of favour-pulling. Collectively, we had a lot of connections, so that was the bonus of a large group.

How long did it take, going from the Facebook thread to opening the bar?

D: Pretty quick. We came up with an idea, then with a name and then we found the space and then we signed the lease.

N: I thought we signed the lease and then came up with a name… ? (Laughs.)

D: Maybe that was how it happened? Either way, it was pretty quick.

Was this over just a couple of months?

D: Yeah. It seems like we talked about it for a bit and then just did it. There was a coffee shop and office space that’d been empty for two years. So we rang up the agents and negotiated a good price for the lease. Before we knew what exactly we were doing, we had a lease. And the thing is, we knew we couldn’t get a liquor licence until we had rented a place for six months. So it all started with getting the space.

When you got your investors on board, did you have a business plan to show?

D: Well, yes and no. We said to those wanting to invest that they shouldn’t be doing it to make money, because we really didn’t know what we were doing. We said it should be viewed more as a hobby, a side-project – to be a part-time owner of a bar. Like sure, get involved, but this isn’t going to make you rich.

Who makes the decisions? I can’t imagine eleven people agreeing to everything…

N: We’ve assigned everyone a role. Dave is the director of the company, so he is the one who makes the final decisions. You can’t have eleven people trying to make decisions – that’s just never going to work. And we all agreed that Dave would be allowed to fail or make bad choices, because sometimes that’s what happens.

Have you felt pressure Dave?

D: Yeah, from the business point of view I do feel a bit of pressure. I want to make this as good as possible, make it as successful as possible, so from that point of view I feel pressure. But I haven’t felt pressure from the other investors directly, no.

Going back to that discussion about opening the place and planning, were the first months profitable?

N: The first few weeks were incredibly busy. It’s really a blur… we were able to pay our bills and all our staff.

D: Yeah, we had the best-case scenario. I think it’s the Gold Coast – when you open here people give you a chance and they’ll check you out straight away. But you have to be good to get repeat customers. I think in other cities of Australia it works differently – you have to wait for people to come to you and it might take a while to get established. Here on the Goldie, you can be successful immediately. And we were confident. We had the networks, so we’ve been open two years now. Although it’s funny because we still get people coming in who say Wow, how long have you been here? (Laughs.)

It seems all the investors really trusted each other, so you were able to establish the bar quickly because of your friendships.

D: My dad said, You shouldn’t be doing this with your friends – first rule of business! But we knew we wouldn’t have problems being honest with each other, telling someone they’re being a dick-head, if that’s what was needed.

N: We all communicate really well.

Did you ever think about the competition from other places in Nobby’s?

N: Not really. Dave and I did a bit of research, and we knew we had a different target market.

D: No one else was doing what we were doing – we didn’t want that singlet and thongs crowd. We wanted to open a place where we ourselves would love to go and have a drink – that twenty-five and above crowd, something a bit more sophisticated.

Did you have any community issues?

D: None. Even the people who live really close behind us haven’t complained – they come in for dinner! I also make a point of going to all the Neighbourhood Watch meetings. A few of the businesses here do that. But yes, the locals like us. We’re not a tourist business. I mean, we have this guy who lives locally and has his own beehive, so he brings us the honey. We feel a part of the community.

So you created a product you yourselves wanted?

D: Yeah. That’s the thing we knew was missing – a bar that catered to our crowd. And that kind of thing seems to happen for successful businesses: they see what’s missing in the market. It’s a classic case of seeing a problem and coming up with the solution.

Did you fear that this kind of bar wouldn’t work for the Gold Coast outside of your own circle?

D: A bit. The funny thing is that Gold Coast customers aren’t given enough credit. They’re really smart customers. I mean, look at all the coffee places now. A place has to be excellent to do well. Customers here are definitely savvy. They want something besides surf clubs and beer gardens.

N: I remember the day we finished the fit-out and our friends and family were coming in, and they were all saying Wow, it looks amazing! (Laughs.) We wanted the space to look different to what was already out there – and we didn’t want one of those bars where people go just to be seen.

Legally, do you have documentation, or is it a verbal agreement between all the partners?

D: We have shareholders agreements. If someone wants to sell their share, there’s a process that has to be followed

N: There’s a contract for dispute resolutions, and details about not opening a similar bar if someone sells their share.

Did any of you, before this bar, consider yourselves entrepreneurs?

D: I knew, for a long time, that I wanted to open a bar or restaurant. Every time I went out, I saw how so many restaurants and bars could be improved, even in terms of good service. That was all I wanted to do really, and it fell into place when it was voiced on Facebook. It turned out a lot of people wanted the same thing.

Do you think it’s common for young people to own a business on the Gold Coast?

D: I’ve spoken about this to various business owners, and I think at the moment you can really divide the Gold Coast into ‘new business’ and ‘old school’. There’s a lot of young entrepreneurs.

N: There’s something special here on the Gold Coast – you can bring an idea and people will support it because they’re receptive. The market isn’t saturated here. You can open a bar because there aren’t many. For example in Sydney, you have to come up with crazy concepts to stand out.

What’s the deal with the name – Cambus Wallace? Where did you pull that from?

D: The story behind our name is a bit of history – there was a Scottish merchant ship, on its maiden voyage headed to the Gold Coast, laden with whisky and beer. When it arrived near our shores, there was a huge storm with massive swell, and the ship tried to take shelter Stradbroke Island but was destroyed. One of the survivors made it to the Southport Hotel and roused a rescue crew. A bit later they ran a salvage operation, and the salvage operation came down from Brisbane, with all these cases of explosives. Afterwards they didn’t want to risk taking all the explosives back, so the salvage crew detonated them at Stradbroke Island and weakened the dunes, so when the next storm came through, it made Straddie into the two islands it is now.

N: True story. Happened in 1894.

What’s your advice for young entrepreneurs?

N: Concentrate on what you want – especially if you see something missing in the market. And if you do one thing, do that one thing really, really well. Like, we have a bar, but we have a reallygood bar, and that’s what it comes down to.

D: And one other thing – don’t go into business with your mates! (Laughs.)

*This interview was featured in Issue #1 of StartUp Creative Magazine