Dehne Bingham is CEO of 100 Burgers, the company behind some of Melbourne’s most well-known restaurants and food trucks. He's leading a hospitality revolution with an entrepreneurial, fail-fast approach.
Dehne developed a taste for cooking at a young age. Growing up in regional Victoria, he learnt to prepare his favourite family meal, a traditional roast dinner, at age 11.
‘I’ve always loved cooking, and food, and the basic generosity that comes from hospitality and serving people. My family had a roast every Saturday night. They were challenging to make, so cooking them was something I became very proud of,’ he says.
Dehne believes his passion for cooking was, partly, a product of birth order. As the second-born son in his family, he began helping his mum prepare meals while his elder brother ‘was off duck shooting, fishing and digging holes with Dad’.
Clearly, cooking was also something Dehne had a natural talent for.
‘Mum trusted my judgement around food. She’d go through things with me a couple of times, then leave me some instructions. Then I’d figure out how stuff’s cooked, what the timings are and when to put the potatoes on.’
From childhood chef to hospitality leader
Now CEO of Australian hospitality venture 100 Burgers Group, Dehne centres his love of food in Melbourne – a hospitality market he describes as ‘one of the toughest on earth’. His company owns Melbourne’s food truck empire Mr Burger; the city’s first permanent bar and food truck stop, Welcome To Thornbury; and the Nashville-inspired diner Belles Hot Chicken, among others.
For Dehne, the path to leadership was grounded in learning. His first step was studying business at La Trobe’s Bendigo campus. Going to university built his confidence and maturity, and helped him connect with a wide range of people and ideas.
‘I could study things I didn’t know existed, and figure out what I liked and didn’t like, at a time when I didn’t really know what I wanted to do in my career,’ he says.
The knowledge he gained through his degree has also informed his leadership approach today.
At 100 Burgers, the two most important things are brand and people. We need to have a strong brand, as well as great engagement with our people, and know how to structure their growth, whether they’re a student working part-time or a really senior CFO.
‘Those are two areas I’ve always been passionate about. So I did a lot of marketing and human resources subjects at La Trobe. And I remember the ‘Training and Development’ subject really clearly, because that’s where I learnt how to sit down with someone and work through how to develop them effectively. It’s such a simple, but important, skill.’
After university, Dehne says the next greatest lesson he learned was to understand and overcome his perfectionist streak.
‘I can still see myself as an 11-year-old, stressed and trying to deliver the perfect roast: “Are the beans overcooked? Are they perfect?”’ he laughs. ‘I’ve always pushed myself to do things to a high standard. So, the biggest thing I’ve had to develop is my own comfort with making mistakes.’
Learning to do more, less perfectly
Within this context, Dehne was given a three-word slogan: ‘Get shit done’. He jokes that his perfectionist personality took a while to receive it.
‘I got that advice from two or three different people, which probably means I didn’t hear it properly the first time!’ he laughs. ‘Those of us who like to get things perfect on the first go need a good kick to be more comfortable with failure.’
The advice was spot on. Starting at 100 Burgers, Dehne stepped into an ultra-competitive hospitality sector where thousands of owner-operators fight to find their niche.
‘Melbourne’s food truck scene has a similar dynamic to the tech industry. It’s like an innovation hub for the restaurant industry. The lower capital commitment, compared to a bricks-and-mortar restaurant, invites more entrants with better ideas,’ he explains.
In such a cut-throat environment, Dehne says, embracing a ‘fail fast’ philosophy is vital.
I ask myself most days, ‘What are the three or four things off I’m going to do today to make the world better than it was yesterday?’. It’s an almost relentless discipline of doing.
‘And because you’re doing so much, you’re going to get a chunk of it wrong. If you’re too hard on yourself at that point, it becomes difficult to get up and go again. I’m quite naturally very hard on myself, so I’ve had to learn to let that go, to not dwell on mistakes.’
When Dehne joined 100 Burgers, it was to grow a small entrepreneurial start-up into a suite of hospitality businesses, while driving remarkable experiences for customers and staff.
One of his primary tasks has been to build a culture that’s prepared to ‘do and fail’. With that comes the difficult work of getting his fellow staff comfortable with the necessity of failure.
‘My biggest challenge is to convince others to come with me, when I actually don’t know the answer. If you can convince people to follow you and you don’t know how it’s going to end, that’s leadership.’
Using disruption to your advantage
Similarities between the hospitality and start-up tech industries are not lost on Dehne. Having complemented his business degree with a Graduate Diploma of Computer Science (2004), he’s quick to see how innovations from the food truck environment can feed into 100 Burgers’ higher investment businesses. Better business systems are just one example.
‘Food trucks use light, easy and reliable cloud-based tech, from point-of-sale till systems, to rostering and accounting software. They fit the mobility requirements of food trucks, they’re run on iPads, they’re simple to use and they’re cheap,’ he says.
‘So now, instead of the old customised systems that might cost you $50,000 to $100,000 to install, we use cloud-based tech in our stand-alone restaurants as well.’
The trend toward lighter technology is one of many disruptions facing the hospitality industry today. In major urban markets, food delivery services like UberEats and Deliveroo are taking a significant share of volume, while payment-integrated ordering apps and kiosks are contesting the need for front of house staff.
‘Business models are changing under our feet and we’re all scrambling to manage that disruption,’ Dehne says. ‘The level of competition and innovation is exciting.’
Seeing the possibilities in disruption means Dehne can use them to his advantage. For example, he predicts disruption around customer eating patterns, including the move towards less meat and more plant-based food, as a source of future growth.
In terms of what people are consuming, beef and lamb are falling significantly; people are trading down from red meat to chicken as an alternative source of protein; and plant-based foods are exploding in popularity.
‘The trend reflects a mix of concerns, like animal welfare ethics, environment and health and wellness. If I look at my own behaviour, I might go four or five days a week and not eat much meat. Whereas growing up in Bendigo, cooking roast dinners for my family, I was eating a lot more.’
As chicken’s popularity surges as an alternative meat choice, he’s made sure 100 Burgers’ brands are ready to leverage the shift.
‘In the last 12 months, we’ve done a lot of work on the remarkability of the Belles Hot Chicken brand, making sure the food, design and customer experience is right. It’s one I’m pretty proud of.’
Sticking with your goals to develop grit
Framing disruption as an opportunity has allowed Dehne to dig in where other businesses might back away. He believes developing this ability to persist, particularly through periods of discomfort is essential for young business graduates.
‘A lot of people move away from something they find uncomfortable. Instead, stick with the discomfort until you’ve really learned what you can take from the experience and what’s important to you,’ he says.
Throughout my life and career, most of my growth has come through hard work and a bit of pain. It’s really important, because the best people to work with have the grit and resilience to keep driving for what they’re after.
Above all, Dehne advises doing work that interests you, and doing it well, is the key to a long and fulfilling career. It’s easy to imagine his 11-year-old self being proud of how far he’s come.
‘I get a natural drive from everything within the hospitality industry. It gives me energy, because ultimately I’m feeding people. And that’s such a nourishing, human act.’
Last updated: 12th August 2019