Founder of the Grounds of Alexandria Ramzey Choker knows what it’s like to lose everything.
The entrepreneur behind one of Sydney’s most popular cafés was juggling multiple businesses after buying his own café at Bondi Beach at the age of 18.
But a few years ago, he made the decision to sell his businesses for $2.6 million and invested it in his father’s food supply company. When the GFC hit in 2008, it ended up going out of business, meaning Choker — and his family — lost everything.
He says the pitfall was the best thing that could have happened to him because it eventually led him to create The Grounds.
“Alexandria was the last thing I had,” he said.
“When you lose everything, everyone leaves you and it actually turned out to be one of the greatest times of my life where I really got to know myself and the confidence in myself and do something I really wanted to create.”
Because he didn’t have the funds, Choker had to borrow money from his friends to get the Grounds up and running. He’d already had his eye on the Alexandria corner site, formerly an industrial car park, for some time. He eventually took the plunge by drawing up renders of his vision and taking it to the vendor.
Turns out, the vendor loved his idea of The Grounds and allowed Choker to take on a 20 year lease of the inner west city site in 2012 with his friend Jack Hanna. Using the business acumen he had gained from his prior businesses as well as his father, Choker set about creating a space that he felt reflected his childhood.
“Before I built the Grounds, I was involved in a lot of hospitality, my father was a phenomenal entrepreneur involved in food service including restaurants, bars and clubs and he was a very successful businessman. So I was exposed to this from a really young age which gave me insight into how it all works and the food game,” says Choker.
The vision Choker had for the space was something that reminded him of his family’s farm in northern NSW, a place that was free and where people could get away from their hectic lives.
“We love building places for people to connect with, most people who come here are either inspired or are escaping from their crazy life,” says Choker.
“And I believe the world’s so fast, there’s no place to go to escape and my mum was from a farm and I grew up there. Basically with The Grounds I wanted to recreate memories of my young childhood of where I was on the farm and certain times in my life where I felt really connected and create something beautiful.”
‘It’s our little city. It’s where we create magic’
The Grounds has since grown to be one of the city’s most popular spaces since it opened its doors in April 2012 with 15,000 people coming through the door every week.
Choker calls The Grounds “our little city” because it has everything from a café, garden, atrium, markets, florist through to a sustainable garden.
And it very much is like a little wonderland, especially in the summer, when the place is bustling with families roaming the markets, people sitting around the fountain in the gardens and friends catching up over brunch. You’ll even find kids playing with the pets on site including pig Kevin Bacon, pony Turbo, goats Goldy Horn and Margoat Robbie as well as the chickens.
“See when you build a café or you build a restaurant, you’re lucky to get five years out of it. With me, I wanted to create a business that’s going to last the test of time,” he says. “I love creating things that I believe people are missing in their lives.”
And the biggest market? “Families. It’s always been about the family — I’m very family-oriented.”
Over the years, each aspect of The Grounds has evolved to attract a different market — the café for families on the weekend and business people during the week, the Potting Shed for grown-ups who want to socialise, the animals for the kids with the atrium and garden also turning into popular venues for weddings.
And with everything going digital, social media has played a big part in its success.
The Grounds has a huge online presence on Instagram and Facebook and has in-house stylists to make sure its presentation is always on point.
“What I realised with social media when we were building it was that everything we do has to be beautiful. Any food, any drink, any interiors, anything we do has to be beautiful.”
The Grounds is currently working on building a new bakery and cooking school, headed by chef Paul McGrath who was formerly with Ananas and North Bondi Fish.
“For me I don’t say I’m building cafés, I’m not in hospitality. For me, I love building and creating amazing businesses that people love coming to. I love serving people,” he says.
Staying ahead of the curve
Since The Grounds was founded in 2012, there have been copycats trying to replicate Choker’s business model.
“I used to worry about them but now I realise as I watch them, they’ll be good in the first month, six months then they’ll just trip over,” says Choker.
“For them, a lot of these guys out there’s it’s just about the money but for us, it’s about what we love to do. The money is just a byproduct of how good we do it.”
He says that the biggest problem when people copy something that’s not who they are is that they can’t keep up with other people’s momentum and change.
“That’s where a lot of people fall over. It’s not about copying someone, it’s about really finding out who you are and your identity and what you truly love to do.”
He says the best advice he ever received from his father, who was also a successful businessman, was to keep his eye on the prize. “You can’t go off.. there’s so much opportunity that comes your way, you have to concentrate, have your goal and vision of where you want to go,” says Choker.
One way that he’s been able to stay on track is with the help of his mentor Ben Harvey, founder of Authentic Education which provides personal development courses and business training.
“They say you can’t reach your full potential without a mentor and I really believe that,” he says.
“Everyone’s got problems in their life and if you’re not able to speak to someone or be able to clear your problems or even just ring them up and say ‘Hey, I’m thinking this. what do you think about it?’… You can’t always go to your own staff, you need an outsider to look at the inside and say if this is a good idea… to bounce ideas, to bounce problems off.”
The biggest hurdle for him was getting over the fear of bankruptcy, especially after his dad built a $100 million business and ended up losing everything.
But Choker says the biggest takeaway from having a mentor is knowing your mindset.
“Understanding your mind, understanding your limiting beliefs, understanding what’s holding you back, understanding how to get your vision and values out to the staff properly.”
So what’s next?
The Grounds is currently expanding with an offshoot at The Galeries in Sydney and Flower Child which recently opened in Chatswood’s Westfield.
For the time being, Choker is still working on The Grounds as it continues to grow with the opening of a new bakery and cooking school. But he says he sees himself overseas in the next five to ten years.
“I’ll move out of the space of just building venues,” he says. “I always get bored pretty easy so I will be doing something else.”
But in between all the success that The Grounds has enjoyed, Choker says he never forgets the lessons he’s learned from his family and his experience of losing everything.
“I wouldn’t be here, there’s no in the way in the world I would ever be where I am today. I would not know what I know, I wouldn’t want to get up and work so hard, create something so great.”
“I always look back and say there’s a reason for me to be where I am today,” he says.
“I’ve got a family that was extremely wealthy and then hit rock bottom which was the best thing I could say that’s ever happened. There was nothing else but a need and a desire to look after my family and to do something truly great.”