Five Minutes with a Legend: Gail Donovan

Published on 4 August 2021

Photo: Gail Donovan of Donovans, St Kilda

Gail Donovan has worked in hospitality for more than five decades, with nearly half of that time spent helming the ship at her St Kilda establishment, Donovans which she runs with her husband. A woman with a passion for food, drinks, and people, Donovan has a unique ability to harness the most out of the people around her, bringing everchanging creativity and eternal positivity to the table. 

A valued member of the MFWF community since its beginnings, Gail was inducted into the MFWF Hall of Fame as an Industry Legend in 2004.

The proudest moment in my career has been... I don’t look at this as a career, I look at this as my life. We started Donovans 24 years ago, and it has been growing every day since – I think that’s something to be proud of, don’t you? When we first took over the lease here, it was an ugly old building. I used to look next door at the magnificent Stokehouse and then look at our joint and say to Kevin, “Well, we’ve got a toilet block, why don’t we try and turn it into a house?”. It has been our house on the beach ever since, and even our customers refer to it as that. That was always our ambition, to be a house rather than a block on the beach, and we’ve done that.

My mentor is my darling husband, Kevin. He arrived in Melbourne to open By The Hyatt on Collins, and I managed to bullshit my way into him hiring me as ‘banquet sales manager’, and from the very start it was so exciting. I knew I wanted to marry him right away, but I also knew I wanted to work with him. He took a hotel banquet hall and was turning over a million dollars a month – and that was back in the ‘80s. His work ethic is extraordinary. He’s a spreadsheet maniac and he’s the man that makes sure we make our small profit, and that it gets shared accordingly.

The mistake that taught me the most was... There have been many, and I still make them all the time, but what’s important is that in this industry you have to get used to making those mistakes. Don’t just learn from one of them, notice them straight away, acknowledge them, and then learn from all of them (and fix them if you can). It’s a bit of a cliché, but I say to everyone in our team if we don’t take chances and do things to make Donovans grow for our customers and our team, then you never know. Those chances often become mistakes, but when they work out, there’s a fantastic sense of achievement. As long as you try to learn from them, that’s what matters. I think really, one of the key learnings is being prepared for those bigger mistakes and accidents as best you can, especially if you’re running your own business (or have dreams of doing so). You need to be very sure that you’ll have enough working capital to cover those unforeseen mistakes in your first year, and you need to invest in good advice, whether it’s legal, accounting, HR or insurance – ideally all of them. 

My first job in hospitality/food was working behind the counter at a milk bar in Carnegie. I was making sandwiches, making milkshakes, and the whole reason I worked there was that we got to make ice-cream sundaes and I just loved them. Rainbow ice-creams and banana splits went off! Everybody loved them. It was a lot of fun.

The reason I got into this industry was... I always loved food, but my mum couldn’t even boil water, so I started reading information about cookbooks to learn more when I was a teenager. Back then, there wasn’t much out there. Women’s Weekly did its best, but it wasn’t much. It might have been youthful confidence but by the time I was about 18 or 19 years old, I had a food business in Malvern and was prepping food for takeaway and at-home meals. There was no competition around then so it was a great little business, then I realised I could continue to learn and travel overseas, get some ideas, and then I started to sell those ideas to others who were trying to start their own food business. It seemed like an industry that interested me, that I could learn so much from. And that’s exactly what it has been and continues to be.

If there’s one positive thing to come out of this lockdown experience, I think it’s... We started six different businesses. We tried something every week. A garage sale, our own wine, takeaway fish and chips, and we’ve got an ongoing ping-pong tournament for the team. We have become much more of a family, and even though things keep changing, our vision is clearer than ever. “Donovans is a place to call home. A place to belong, to feel welcome, and to create special memories.” During lockdowns, we sit down for an hour over lunch, open up some nice wine, order some food, and the whole team just talks. It has allowed us to get to know each other more on a personal level. It has been a game-changer.

If I could return to any moment in the Melbourne/Victorian hospitality industry of the last 50 years, I’d choose to go back to a time when our hospitality colleges had a bit more funding than what they have now, and we could produce enough skilled people to work in our industry. Without wanting to be political, we’re now seeing a growth in awareness and action around treatment of staff, working conditions, boosting creativity with your teams, respect and paying people properly but there’s little action on that education front. Our industry is so resourceful and creative (something that really excites me), but is it up to us to build on education?

But the most exciting development in the Melbourne/Victorian hospitality industry in the last five years is... Everything new excites me. The creativity and new openings just continue to floor me, but it does make me think - how do we as an industry create a module where we can educate staff to keep up with the imagination and creativity of those new kids that are above on beyond? They’re amazing, but they’re the exception, not the rule. How can we continue to grow and change as a whole? With the withdrawal of working visas, we need to prioritise the future for the industry.

What’s next for me?  I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing at Donovans, but Kevin and I are so open to change now that who knows ‘what’s next for me’ will look like in six months or a year.
Really, I’d just do anything I could to make people want to be in our industry. So, next for me, I’d like to really be a champion for that, and on that note, anyone reading this can ask me anything if it helps their career and the industry.

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