Most of us were taught not to eat with our hands. Kickin'Inn co-owner Ravi Singh was no exception.
"I remember when growing up my mum and dad would say 'Right, we're going to a restaurant and you're going to have to behave yourself. Pick up the right fork, the right spoon, don't shout or yell'," he tells Weekender.
"When I was setting up the concept for Kickin'Inn I thought 'You know what? I am going to test the theory and do it in reverse. We are going to make it very messy, we are going to throw the food on the table, we're not going to hand out cutlery, we're going to ask customers to use their hands and be themselves and have fun'.
"And guess what? When we tried it at our first shop in Petersham we failed. We got rejected. Diners didn't want to break the restaurant norms."
It took some persuasion - and patience - to convert them.
"We started explaining how you should be eating seafood: you can't eat it with knives and forks; you've got to use your hands, have fun and don't worry about the table next to you because they are doing the same thing and no one is going to complain," Singh says.
"Eventually the idea took off and I could not handle the number of customers coming in to Petersham so we had to open a second restaurant.
"From there on we just kept opening restaurants and now we have 16."
Kickin'Inn at Charlestown Square is the newest addition. It officially opened on May 25 in the light-filled eastern corner of the level two food court.
Kajun is the Kickin'Inn version of Cajun.
The menu is primarily seafood, influenced by traditional Cajun flavours of the southern US state of Louisiana, although Singh re-branded it as "Kajun". There are four main steps to ordering from the menu: choose your favourite seafood; choose a sauce; select the heat factor of your sauce; and add on sides. There are non-seafood options on the children's menu, lunch and house specials, a few vegetarian options, and dessert.
Kickin'Inn is licensed.
Singh and his business partner Sami Karras tried for three years to find a Cajun supplier and ended up making their own version using trial and error and a lot of herbs and spices.
"We worked hard to develop our Kajun sauce and every time a customer places an order, we make the Kajun sauce from ground up, from zero," he says.
"We don't pre-cook sauces, it's made fresh there and then in the kitchen.
"In the US Cajun is used a lot with crawfish because it's readily available. In Australia it's more associated with chicken, but as for seafood, no.
"I added a third element to the Kickin'Inn concept - throwing the food on the table."
To protect your clothing as you feast on a seafood bag, as they're known, gloves and adult-sized bibs are provided.
The seafood is not fresh from the ocean, and Kickin'Inn doesn't claim that it is. It goes straight into the pot from frozen.
"We have a very strong company culture and this is what I teach my 400 staff: honesty, integrity and being humble," Singh explains.
"No, we don't catch seafood direct from the sea, it's fresh frozen. We don't defrost things - it goes straight into the pot and we cook it.
"But as I said before, the sauces are made fresh."
Singh, his wife Veena, and Sami and Hala Karras built the Kickin'Inn brand and remain hands-on today.
"We are always in the restaurants; we help clean the bathrooms, we talk to customers, we do whatever needs to be done," he says, having just spent a week in Newcastle to coincide with the opening of the Charlestown store.
"In 2015 I set a goal - I wanted to open 100 restaurants by 2030. We seem to be on the right path. If i wasn't for COVID we'd probably we sitting on about 20 or 30 stores by now, but we are gradually moving upwards."
I ask him why he decided to expand Kickin'Inn to Charlestown.
"We had plans to get in to the Newcastle market for the past three years but we couldn't because of COVID and all of the market turbulence we had to face," Singh replies.
"Every three months we run an anecdotal social media campaign asking people where they want us to open a restaurant next.
"When we ran this campaign in December, to our surprise 67 per cent of the people who jumped online asked us to open in Newcastle, and 38 per cent of them commented that they had travelled from Newcastle to Sydney to eat seafood.
"When the Charlestown location became available we jumped at the opportunity.
"I've been there for the past week and everyone is telling me the sauces we make are just great, and they love the way we make the seafood and put it on the table, as well as the vibe, the culture, the experience.
"Newcastle needed something different and Charlestown has just gone gangbusters."
- Location: Level 2, Charlestown Square Food Court, 30 Pearson Street, Charlestown
- Opening hours: Monday to Sunday, noon to 9pm
- Bookings: kickininn.com.au
- Children aged 8 and under eat free, Monday to Wednesday only
- House specials: 1kg crawfish served in bag ($49.95); 500g flower-cut squid and 2 potatoes served in bag ($24.95); 5 mud crab halves, 5 bay bugs and 2 potatoes served in bag ($89.95)
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