New business model revives iconic Newcastle eatery

Aaron Van De Stadt is not building an app or working in artificial intelligence.

The thirty-three-year-old new father has instead, with the help of his partner and friends, taken his life experience, expertise in the hospitality industry and knowledge of the city that he grew up in and dazzled Novocastrians with the relaunch of a cherished sandwich shop, Big Al’s.

“Basically I knew how to run a food truck and I had already established connections,” Aaron says of the restaurant’s current model. “I knew (food trucks) were a very flexible tool. The idea is to figure out the menu, engage the customers, and then work out which locations would be best.”

In late 2018, with some assistance from the University of Newcastle’s Integrated Innovation Network (I2N), Aaron has reintroduced one of Newcastle’s favourite restaurants of the 80s and 90s. He’s professionally rebranded the well-loved logo. He has employed a fulltime expert sandwich creator, Lachlan Hewitt. Now the city of Newcastle is going nuts with nostalgia and lining up in droves to try the new rendition of Big Al’s.

This is just the beginning of a little eatery with a big history.

“Originally it was a take on a Chicago style sandwich shop, but it localised over the years to a point where it wasn’t remotely authentic,” he says.

It might not be authentic to Chicago, but it is a source of genuine love to Newcastle folk.

Big Al’s arrived in Newcastle after a gentleman from Texas named Colin Scott brought the idea over. The shop opened in 1979 on the corner of King and Brown Street. Scott sold sandwiches here until the early 90s and then he sold the business to Leo and Deanne Apostolou, an Italian family who owned it until the early 2000s. They opened a second location in Charlestown which they on-sold in 2005 before it closed for business in 2006.

In the 80s the business was competing with fast food prices. This time around, Aaron has opted to bring both the cost and quality up instead.

Aaron recalls, “Originally I was going operate the business as a (one off) popup, but it ended up with a huge reach on Facebook. That’s when I realised how big it was going to be, and I had to take more time to piece it all together.”

It was also through social media that Aaron found out about the University’s I2N and started attending events and workshops it delivers to connect and support entrepreneurs.

“I saw it on Facebook, and I’d been to a few free talks via I2N. There was a trademarking and patent fellow, Steven Key who did a talk at NeW Space, that was really fun,” Aaron says.

Despite the fact that the entrepreneur literature can be geared towards tech startups, Aaron correctly presumed he could apply this teaching to a more conventional business like his own. He was particularly curious about the business model canvas, which is why he attended several I2N Immersives to help navigate this useful business tool.

By mid-2018, he’d already read a book on lean startup principles and followed this up by signing up for three workshops. He sat in over several workshops with about half a dozen interesting people, ranging from students to business owners and professionals who worked in small teams using their own business ideas to learn about Customer Discovery, Business Model Canvas and Product Design. Aaron was particularly interested in customer discovery, and the workshops changed the direction in which he’d take his business.

Through the Immersive on Customer Discovery, Aaron learnt that trialing different ideas is a fantastic way to test theories and get valuable feedback.

“You can do surveys, but at the end of the day, engaging and speaking with the customer is what you need to do. It’s the easiest and it’s the best,” Aaron says of his biggest takeaways.

With his new knowledge, he took his food truck to Newcastle East in December 2018 for its first launch. Held at the former Newcastle Station, it was a successful trial run. Big Al’s used the convenient location to dress up the venue like it was a proper restaurant, complete with seats, tables and pinball machines.

(He said the beauty of the truck is its “sheer flexibility.”)

“It went really well,” Aaron says of the launch “My idea would be to try to do it again once a year, always similar to a temporary shop and always to make it a really fun. The ultimate goal is to (eventually) work it into a (permanent) shop front.”

He’s also keen to keep discovering the best way to reach and engage customers. His upcoming project will be to implement an ordering system via text, as older clientele aren’t as responsive to social media.

“It’s just the nature of the game, you couldn’t have a food truck before social media because no one could ever find you,” he says.

He reckons his biggest challenge is re-captivating the old market and communicating to them.

“People thought we were trying to cash in on nostalgia but we just want something Novocastrians can be proud of and link to their past,” he says. “One interesting part we find is that it’s owned by the audience; it’s not really ours. We’re like a caretaker or custodian of the brand.”

People from all over the Hunter region used to catch the train or the bus to go to Big Al’s, and Aaron plans to recreate this. If he gets it right, he can entice a younger generation while also bringing back older fans. He remembers during their launch a woman saw the truck and was reminded how her sister used to take her to Big Al’s restaurant as a child.

“She cried when she got her sandwich,” Aaron says.

Aaron’s style is non-traditional; his hospitality background is not what many think of when they hear the word “innovator.” And successful business is dependent on much more than a popular Facebook post, but it appears Aaron’s unique combination of life skills, educational investments and thoughtful planning are driving Big Al’s in a promising direction.

Learn more about the regularly rotating schedule of I2N Immersives here.

To find out when Big Al’s will be in your neighbourhood, visit their Facebook page.

The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.