Ramzey Choker implicitly understands the turbulent nature of business. As the founder of The Grounds of Alexandria – and its recent offshoot, The Grounds of the City – Choker has experienced the full-spectrum of business risk: from bankruptcy to the phenomenal success of The Grounds franchise.
Ramzey Choker's creative vision for his "little cities" is about connection: "it’s not [just] about building cafes, serving food and beverages, it’s about the life, soul and energy; a place to connect and escape."
For those not familiar with the 6000 square metre Grounds of Alexandria, the site houses a restaurant and bar, patisserie, coffee-roastery, animal farm, florist, markets and permaculture garden. The Grounds was Instagram's seventh most geo-tagged place in Australia last year.
Ramzey Choker will be speaking at The Urban Developer's inaugural Urbanity '17 conference in September. In anticipation, we asked the entrepreneur to share his creative vision, development turmoils, and what is next for the insta-famous The Grounds.
TUD: You've built the Grounds of Alexandria into one of Australia's most loved experiences. What were you doing before you started The Grounds?
RC: I’ve owned more than 10 hospitality business, including a range of multiple takeaway shops and cafes, an Oporto's franchise, a bar and two restaurants.
I worked in my father’s food service business from a very young age supplying bars and restaurants with dry and frozen goods. I started an imports brand for gourmet Italian produce (Salt Meats Cheese) and I also owned another company, Raw Ingredients supplying produce such as nuts.
TUD: Where did you come up with the initial vision for the Grounds of Alexandria?
RC: The concept behind The Grounds was born from a difficult time in my life. My father was an amazing businessman and entrepreneur so I grew up being exposed to his work and inspired by his ethic.
After our family was hit incredibly hard with the GFC and lost everything my father had worked for decades to build, he was diagnosed with cancer and passed away. Creating The Grounds was a way for me to honour his memory, and recreate the feelings and experiences I was fortunate enough to experience growing up in his presence.
The concept of The Grounds was born out of a need and desire to look after my family, I wanted to honour the memory of my father and all of the lessons he taught me, and do something truly great for not only the community but the whole country. I wanted to build places and spaces that empower my staff and allow our guests to interact and reconnect with one another.
TUD: How did you initially source the funding to get the concept off the ground?
RC: At the time that I conceptualised The Grounds of Alexandria, I had no money to my name. It was with the financial support of a few close friends who believed in my vision that I was able to fund the concept.
TUD: How did you convince the property owners that this was the right concept and you were the right operator?
RC: They asked that I create a 3D render of what I envisioned the space to look like. When we came into the market at that time the Alexandria area was nothing like it is today. It was a heavily industrialised area and off the map. There wasn’t much interest from other hospitality businesses who were keen to invest in building something amazing.
TUD: You refer to the Grounds of Alexandria as your own "little city" – what do you think urban planners can learn from the Grounds of Alexandria?
RC: The two biggest lessons would be to create beauty and experience in everything you do, and to stop using so much concrete. It’s so important to give meaning to what you build.
TUD: The Grounds of Alexandria is one of the most "Instagrammed" locations in Australia. What does this tell you about it?
RC: I was so humbled to discover that The Grounds of Alexandria is one of the most Instagrammed locations in Australia. The Grounds of Alexandria was built out of the desire to serve our community and country, and to create a place where our guests can reconnect. The way in which our guests engage with our spaces and share their experiences through photos on social media is a testament to our vision, and signifies the success of what we’ve created.
The best part for me is that this place evokes feelings and creates memories for our guests – we see it here everyday. In such a busy world where we're all so caught up in the stress and pressures of work and everything that's going on, we aim to offer something that allows people to truly reconnect with one another.
Photography: Steven Woodburn
TUD: You just recently opened a new concept on George Street in the Sydney CBD. What's this next move about?
RC: The Grounds of the City serves to bring beauty and life to those in the city. We’re creating a cultural hub that reignites the heart and soul of a place that lacks a sense of connection. We’ve taken inspiration from a time where coffeehouses were much more meaningful to people than a simple coffee purchase, and we’ve gone above and beyond to couple it with innovations that break down barriers for an experience like nothing else. We’re here to bring beauty and amazing quality in our offering with an amazing experience, and build a community in the centre of the city.
The Grounds is all about creating new experiences for our guests and for The City we wanted to prove that we could create something even better inside just a 300
m2 venue. Born out of the same philosophy, we’re bringing the charm, warmth and beauty of the past back into the city.
TUD: What's next for your business? And what does the future hold?
RC: A big part of what we’re doing is growing and improving the Alexandria spaces but it’s about understanding what we’re building and making sure that what we’re creating is adding value to the world and our guests’ lives.
We’re expanding and moving into a more education-focussed department by teaching people what we’re doing. We’ve recently started sharing our areas of expertise with our guests, with masterclasses in food, florals and styling, and that’s going to grow rapidly in the coming months with coffee programs and more. We’re looking to start up an entrepreneurial element to the business – to create an avenue for kids to learn about business and how to channel their focus into building something for themselves.
We’re also currently trying to source a new location for a third Grounds experience venue, along with building a place and space for young start-ups where we can guide them and help them grow. Over the last few years I’ve also been developing a concept that I hope will change the world in terms of health.
Business has always been in my blood and I love creating things. The Grounds brand is just one single platform to do that through, and I'm just getting started.
Ramzey Choker will be speaking at
Urbanity ’17 is a two-day conference exploring new markets and business models. At Urbanity ’17 you’ll hear from the best and brightest minds, gaze into the future of disruptive technologies and learn more about our built environments through interactive workshops.
The conference will come to life through 30+ speakers, 3 x stages, 5+ workshops, 500+ attendees, 10+ networking events, 1 x “roast” lunch.
Tickets are limited and still available, to register click here.