Adam & Emma on Navy Bear & other cafe ventures

Published Wed 04 Sep 2019

"Capital Venture"

Mosman Daily - Thursday August 29th


Adam Marshall is at the Mosman Rowers, where breakfast is being served in the Archie Bear cafe. The waterside eatery is part of the three-strong cafe business, Bird & Bear, which Adam, 34, runs with wife Emma. The company portfolio, which includes Sandy Bear at Clontarf, Foys restaurant and The Flying Bear cafe at Sydney Flying Squadron Kirribilli, will expand into Rushcutters Bay in October, with the opening of the fittingly-named Navy Bear cafe at Royal Australian Navy Sailing Association (RANSA).

Hospitality is a tough business to be in right now, as former owners of The Boathouse Group, Pip and Andrew Goldsmith, might attest. “The Boathouse Group was inspiring for us because we spend a lot of time up in the northern beaches in summertime with family. When they first opened it, I (thought) we can do this in our local community,” Adam said.

“It’s really sad when you see a husband and wife team and they have literally put everything in to it,” Emma said. “They are doing a similar thing in terms of making these beautiful locations open and accessible. I hope that they’re able to revive things.”

The Boathouse Group has been sold, but the Marshalls are not worried about following suit.

“I think the thing that stops me worrying is making sure we are sustainable from a financial perspective,” Adam, a former Knox Grammar pupil, said. “Bankruptcy, for me, is not an option. Every fortnight I go through my financials. I have two board directors in an advisory capacity and I go looking for more information. I do my due diligence, and I watch our numbers as closely as I watch our customer feedback. There’s only one person that can sack us, and that’s our customer, and there’s only one thing that can mess us up, and that’s our finances.”

All of Bird & Bear’s projects have been done on a budget. The kit-out of their first cafe at Elizabeth Bay back in 2011 cost $45,000, and was funded by credit card. Furniture was handmade. Tightening the purse strings has been part of the company ethos since. “We don’t spend 600 bucks on a chair, although Emma probably would have liked to because she falls in love with wonderful design pieces that are expensive,” Adam said. “We always come back to our budget and we were able to deliver Mosman Rowers on budget, which is amazing, right?”

Much of Bird & Bear’s $1.1 million investment in Mosman Rowers was spent “underground, fixing the building and structural works, repairing water leaks and other things you wouldn’t see when you walk into the venue and look at the chairs and tables and lighting and things,” said Emma.

But the investment was one facet of the lifeline for the club, which as Adam points out, “was broke and out of luck ... It had half a million dollars-worth of debt. That was the first time we had to go through an administration process for a club, and it was very interesting to watch.” Members fought hard against closure, and were ultimately able to secure a reprieve from death row thanks to a mammoth fundraising effort.

“The three critical steps were (first) to raise the money to satisfy the creditors,” club president Kathrina Doran said. “The second was to secure a longer-term lease with RMS. The third was to secure a professional operator, which is Bird & Bear, to help refresh and refurbish the look and feel and the offering for our members.”

It worked and the club has been sailing, for want of a better word, since its reopening in March.


For the Marshalls, Mosman Rowers was a natural step to follow their previous acquisition of Foys Restaurant and the Flying Bear cafe at Sydney Flying Squadron, Kirribilli, which had come about through chance. Adam had made a foray into shipping container cafes, approaching the Sydney Flying Squadron about a vacant burnt-out boatshed next door to the club as a possible site for a container. “They said, ‘Well why don’t you come and look at the club here? We’ve got a caterer, but people aren’t coming in, we’re losing money’,” Emma said.

Bankruptcy, for me, is not an option ... I watch our numbers as closely as our customer feedback

The couple now has 85 staff (many there from near the beginning) and there have been highs — the Rowers revival one of the latest

— and lows. Sometimes highs and lows come at the same time: namely the birth of the couple’s daughter Arna, now four months old, which coincided with a fire at the Rowers prior to its opening. It was caused by a flue to the gas heater becoming blocked.

“I was still in hospital after having Arna, and I was just in a bubble of love and totally tuned out to the business,” Emma said. “Poor old Adam had to literally put fires out, trying to organise everything. Thankfully because the builders had only walked out two weeks earlier, they just came right back in. They knew everything inside out and were able to repair it all and turn it around in four or five days, and then we reopened.”

Not every business owning couple would work as well together as the Marshalls.

“We’re completely different personality types and it somehow works in that way,” Emma said. “Adam is a super-involved, flexible and engaged dad to Arna. Every morning we go for a walk with our dog and Arna, rain, hail or shine. The way we’ve set up the business … we’re not having to be there on the weekends or Saturday nights. (It’s) very family-friendly … Arna comes with me whenever I go: she’s there at the meeting table, in the kitchen talking to a chef … it’s working really nicely.”

If family is the structure that holds the operation together, community is the glue. Emma praises the Clontarf locals who, despite being closely knit, embraced the pair when they opened the Sandy Bear seaside kiosk. And Mosman Rowers members have been endlessly supportive.

“Adam and Emma were a great fit for the club (because) they have a very strong sense of community,” Doran said. “We have an aligned vision and understanding it’s a member-centric club; the services we provide are for members. I believe this is a sustainable model, because we have the right people to work with.”

The couple plans further expansion, but only for the right projects.

“There have been some clubs … that have said to us, ‘Can you come and do what you do in our club?’ And we’ve said no. For a start, we want to be hanging out with the salty sea dogs,” Adam said. “We sail out of our club in Rushcutters Bay, which is the next one we’re going to open. We picked up sailing together when we got married because we wanted a common interest, and another common interest is our business — and failing clubs are a big part of our business.

“RANSA was created by the Navy for people that came back from the war to try and reconnect back into Sydney life, and it’s proven very helpful for people with disability. We’re focusing our energies on how these clubs can change for the better and not for the better of our financial state. A lot of clubs are not looking for surplus or big profits, they’re looking for successful integration into their community and want to grow membership. What we’re trying to do is revive community assets and make a sustainable business. For example, we’re trying to turn our cafe at Clontarf into a club for kayaking and paddle boarding.

“We want to have businesses for generations to come. We’ve gone into two sailing clubs and one community club, which was a rowing club, and those have all been in existence for over a hundred years. Sydney Flying Squadron has been going since Mark Foy established it 127 years ago — how wonderful is that, over 100 years of sailing tradition and camaraderie?”