Q&A: Aaron Carrasco and James Crowe (Pinot & Picasso)


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Aaron Carrasco (left) and James Crowe (right) – Founders of Pinot & Picasso, Checho’s and Favela.

Joining us for a short interview, Aaron Carrasco and James Crowe reveal the drivers of their business success, inspirations and challenges.

Why do you do what you do – fundamentally, what is it that really inspires you?

A: I’ve always been fascinated by human performance. This isn’t only in regards to entertainment or sports at the highest level – I love how people can perform at incredible heights in daily life. Seeing someone smash their ceiling of potential to become a powerhouse will never not stop inspiring me.

J: I’m an absolute sucker for a really good success story. I think hearing stories about like minded people who have created something out of nothing, or defied the odds to achieve something exceptional – really gets me excited to lean into whatever i’m working on, and push myself forward.

What three pivotal moments have defined your career?

A: Without mentioning any of James’ answers – convincing our partners to take on our first head office space when there were 4 people in the company was huge. Then assembling an amazing team to build our Mexican restaurant Chechos then finally finding hidden gems in our staff who have gone on to become leaders within our organisations and have completely propelled their careers forward.

J: Aaron and I agreeing to take a risk on opening our first Pinot & Picasso studio definitely stands out as a clear defining moment, taking the leap to leave a decent full-time job to pursue a dream and most recently jumping on a plane to expand Pinot & Picasso into the UK. The jury is still out on how this most recent chapter will define me, but excited to be on the journey.

Where are you pushing things forward to innovate and why?

A: The term ‘operationally excellent’ has been something James and I have been talking about aspirationally. This doesn’t sound awfully exciting but when it is achieved it is something of pure beauty. The term refers to ensuring every facet of the business is under the helm of effective leaders who can continue to build, grow and execute our grand plans.

What’s your process for selecting a new site and how can you tell if it’s going to be a success?

A: New sites have always been about the context of the area you are trying to enter into. What are the movement patterns of the people who reside there? Is the main street the only street? Is nearby parking the biggest deal breaker or are people happy to commute via public transport? All these questions, plus many more, need to be asked and figured out prior to locking in a site. The more background you have, you are setting yourself up for success just that little bit more.

What are you learning about at the moment?

A: Currently really interested in understanding how really effective teams work and function over a long period. I have a keen interest in the behind the scenes elements of sports teams or bands – sometimes more than the performances themselves. Further to understanding how they work and the trust required, I am learning how to effectively deliver tough messages to people in teams to increase performance at either an individual or group level.

J: At the moment, I’m reading up and listening to plenty of content around optimising my own performance, my leadership and ensuring I show up the best for my team whenever I can. Obviously this is a perpetual pursuit, but I’m really enjoying consuming positive content and making changes to the way I do things in order to better myself. Sounds cheesy but I’m loving the journey. My default learning vertical is always marketing content (going back to my roots), so I’ve been learning more about how marketing is shifting, specifically diving into Seth Godin’s ‘This is Marketing’ this week which has been eye opening on hyper targeting niches with tailored content and offers.

What’s your creative process (the steps you take to make your ideas a reality)?

A: Ideas are forever turning around in my head. Often, I will just let them continue to swirl around until something needs to come out then I will write it out either on my phone or on paper. Once it’s out, it needs a little more time to grow. Unless I feel the idea is so strong it needs to be actioned straight away. I have learnt over the years that quite often you can be on the right street but wrong house, but with more time you are likely to get there.

J: For me, I always like to start with what my idea would look like in a utopian world. All our ideas tend to start as something a little wild, left of field and a bit of stretch. From there, we pull it all apart and figure out what’s actually possible at this point in time with the resources we have, and what we can realistically pull off. If it’s unachievable or doesn’t have the desired effect – we shelf it for another time. Nothing worse than wasting an idea which could be something special!

Which brands or individuals do you look to for inspiration?

A: At a lifestyle level, I am a huge fan of Adidas and their ability to have all their previous logos work together to get bigger. As well as their seamless ability to function in high performance sport, lifestyle and pop culture. In hospitality, we have always looked towards Merivale for their consistency across so many venues, their cutting-edge fit-outs and amazing service throughout the organisation.

J: I’m the biggest fan of brands who are working tirelessly to humanise themselves. Looking out of the industry, brands like ‘Go To’ (great products, my skin thanks them) and LVLY market themselves with an extreme level of emotional intelligence. Looking at their Mothers Day campaigns – they created an opt out option for their marketing, considering customers who don’t celebrate or look forward to Mother’s Day. It’s touches like this that inspire our brand to do better, and be more mindful with our business practices.

What’s your number one industry resource? What have you found to be the most valuable resource in the development of your career?

A: Shoedog by Phil Knight is a guiding light for me, it reminds me of perseverance and determination.

J: Honestly the best hospitality book i’ve ever read is Setting the Table by Danny Meyer. I was recommended this book by a good friend, Phil Hallani (owner of Percy Plunkett, Fish Fish, Gellafrenda and now the Orchard in Penrith). Not only did it light a fire inside of me the first time I read it, but helped refocus our businesses to be customer-centric and living for providing the best customer experiences possible. Whether we’re focusing on Pinot & Picasso, Checho’s or Favela – this book re-centres and continuously underlines exactly why we’re in hospitality. It’s invaluable and the ultimate hospitality resource.

Who inspired you when you started out and why – and who inspires you now and why?

A: As a child of migrant parents, the ‘have a go’ notion of Australia really inspired me. This country allows you to do and be anything you want and I learnt relatively early if you are prepared to put yourself out there that the reward far outweighs the risk. Since conducting business around NZ and the UK, we can confirm that Australia is greatest place to conduct business.

J: Personally my Mum & Dad have been my biggest inspiration throughout. Dad has always worked for himself and created a successful business which complimented the lifestyle of his family. Mum has this incredible drive and relentlessness in pursuing what she wants. They set a standard on what success looks like both from a business/work perspective, but also to raise a family while doing so (and making it look effortless). Forever grateful for what they’ve given me and my sister, and inspired me to provide the same for myself and my family – one day.

What’s your greatest friction point at the moment and what are you learning from it?

A: International growth pains compounded with a tricky Australian economy can contribute to a few restless sleeps! The past few years have provided some of the biggest learnings one could ask for and I don’t think we are remotely close to the age of serious learnings just yet.

J: The biggest challenge across our businesses at the moment is and always has been our people. It’s a really testing time for business owners, and obviously individuals too. With the cost of living on the rise, there is plenty at stake for everyone whether you own or work in a business. We’re playing this balancing act of trying to attract the best talent possible, ensure the long term future of the business and most importantly keep the people who have worked and sacrificed with us – happy in their roles. Getting that balance right is really tough, but really rewarding when it all comes together.

What’s your most effective tool?

A: I am an absolute sucker for the Google suite. The ease that everything is connected is great.

J: Honestly, I’d be lost without Monday.com. Seriously cannot fault this productivity tool in keeping everyone singing the same song. Whether we’re launching a new menu, a new website, dealing with customer complaints or responding to customer enquiries Monday does it. With so many people working remotely (and me working from the UK) it keeps the wheel moving without too much input. Can’t recommend higher.

If you were to do anything else, what would you be doing?

A: I would either be working in sport or entertainment. However, we have an amazing cross-section of experiences within our current roles and get the best of all worlds.

J: Can I say I wouldn’t be doing anything else? Hospitality has always been in my blood, and before Pinot & Picasso, Checho’s, Favela I was working in pubs. One way or another, I know I’d find my way back to providing customer experiences somehow.

Who would you like to see an interview with?

A&J: Justin Hemmes