Nestled along the riverbank in the heart of the CBD, A Touch of Salt has solidified its reputation as one of the city’s premier fine dining establishments. Now, with a new refurbishment under their belt, owners Mark and Michael Brine reflect on their 18 years in business.
“It’s been ten years since our last renovation,” explains Mark, beckoning to the new space, which has been thoughtfully designed to give the restaurant a more “refined aesthetic” and “intimate dining experience,” while helping to absorb some of the noise.
“Every renovation we do feels like a fresh start. We’re calling it A Touch of Salt 3.0. We feel more mature in this space.”
“Well, we are,” interjects his brother Michael, who is one of Townsville’s most decorated chefs.
After completing his apprenticeship, Michael worked overseas refining his culinary skills, before returning to Townsville with the vision of creating an exceptional dining experience. In 2005, with the help of his wife, Melissa, and a friend who was a pastry chef, A Touch of Salt opened their doors.
“I came back from overseas and said I was ready to open something. I wasn’t,” notes Michael, who was 26 at the time.
A Touch of Salt’s newly refurbished space
“But Dad was a big instigator in terms of encouraging us to get outside of our comfort zone. We looked at five or six different restaurants available at the time, and it was the kitchen here that drew me to this place.”
Six months after opening, Melissa discovered she was pregnant, prompting Mark, who was overseas at the time, to return home and assist in managing the operations and front-of-house.
“Everything happened very quickly,” recalls Mark. “I was learning how to carry three plates at a time. It’s definitely become much easier than it used to be.”
Michael pipes in. “On paper, the age and experience levels and everything in those early days had so many red flags. We shouldn’t be sitting here 18 years later. I think it was just guts and determination.”
Their father, Peter Brine, who is also involved in the business, spent two decades in management roles at the Sheraton Breakwater Casino Hotel. Both acknowledge the key role he played in helping establish the restaurant during its early stages.
“He was helping bring in customers from work and I think they were used to a certain type of dining experience,” says Michael.
“That, along with the type of food I enjoyed creating, is how we sort of became known for what we call ‘casual’ fine dining. My goal was just to put nice food on the plate.”
Since this time, A Touch of Salt has risen to national acclaim, earning a place among Australia’s top 50 restaurants for the last five years in a row. This is only one of many in a long list of accolades that has them dubbed as Townsville’s most awarded restaurant.
But, for Mark and Michael, such awards are simply “the garnishes on a delicious meal.”
“We’re in a real pocket,” says Michael, referring to our northern location. “It’s a good reflection on the restaurants who have won the awards over the years, like us and Jam Corner. It really showcases what we have to offer up here.”
Following the restaurant’s success, the brothers opened a wine and tapas bar on Palmer Street in 2010. However, after identifying an increasing demand for three-course fine dining, they later transformed it into The Salt Cellar, which became A Touch of Salt’s main competitor.
It went on to become Townsville’s first ever restaurant to earn a prestigious Chef’s Hat, a culinary accolade that is awarded to the top chefs around Australia (A Touch of Salt went on to earn their own Chef’s Hat in 2012).
Yet, despite having the top two restaurants in the city, they made the decision to sell The Salt Cellar in 2013, after the challenges of simultaneously managing both saw them spread too thin.
“Michael and I tried to do everything,” explains Mark, mentioning the pressure and expectation that came with opening the second restaurant. “I’d spend half the night here and then run across the road and spend half a night there, and Michael would do the same.
“The management of two chef hatted restaurants proved to be more difficult, and costly than expected.
“We made the sensible decision to sell The Salt Cellar and use the funds, and extra manpower to grow our event and catering business.”
With this renewed focus, they began introducing their festival events, with the inaugural, ‘Beef to Barossa’ launching in 2016 to resounding success. Their festivals cater for around 600 attendees, with tickets now consistently selling out within days of being released.
But, whilst at their peak, the pandemic forced them to adapt to uncharted territory. This resulted in them implementing an online ordering system and converting their fine dining establishment into a takeaway delivery service.
They also created ‘Cook Like A Pro Boxes’ whereby customers could purchase a box of ingredients and follow along with a YouTube video of Michael’s step-by-step preparation of the same dish. Their innovative thinking during this time meant they did not have to let go of any of their staff.
“These guys in the kitchen didn’t stop,” says Mark. “In fact, in those three months, they’d never been busier. The delivery was hard work, but it reopened the market for us, and people remember the effort we put in to stay afloat during those three months and provide that service to their doors.
“We had regulars who remained regulars, and we learnt a lot. I feel like we’ve sort of changed as business owners a lot since those times. It was really well-received, and we’ve traded off that good will since.”
Their family-style approach has remained at the heart of A Touch of Salt even all these years later.
This mentality has permeated their staffing and mentorship efforts and seen the restaurant become a breeding ground for the training of the next generation of chefs.
They are now exploring the possibility of chef exchanges, which would involve sending select staff overseas and having chefs from the host country come to Townsville and work in their place.
“It’s something extra for us as an employer to offer that sort of potential for staff members to travel around,” says Michael, referring to the impact his own international experience, in places like China and the U.S, had on building his skill set.
“We’ve been in the industry for 18 years now, so if we can provide some sort of opportunities for future chefs that builds their confidence and puts them out of their comfort zone, it’s great for the longevity of the industry.
“You might be sending one of your chefs out to go to another country for a month, but then they bring a slice of that country back to Townsville and it makes the food scene a little better.
“You can teach anyone to cut an onion, but at the end of the day, we just look for nice people. You spend all day with each other. You want to get along.”
As for their own working dynamic 18 years on?
“He stays on the tiles,” grins Mark. “I stay on the carpet.”
Main image: Mark Brine and Michael Brine, Owners of A Touch of Salt.
Image credits: Shae Beplate – Shae K Photography
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