Movers & Shakers

Tommy Collins and Tommy McIntosh aim to excel in Melbourne and Victoria’s thriving culinary and cultural scene.

By Ben Ice. Photography by Jim Wilde.

Growing up in Brisbane, Tommy McIntosh first visited Melbourne to stay with his sister, and always remembers walking the streets, through the back alleyways of the city. “The buzz of all the cafés, the smells, everything,” he recalls.

In Brisbane, McIntosh got his beginnings in hospitality, working in pubs. Despite trying other things, he always found his way back to hospitality.

He then moved to the UK, and had the opportunity to work in some world-class cocktail bars. His skills making cocktails led to the origin of the catering business brand name – he became known as Tommy Collins after the Tom Collins cocktail. When he returned to Australia after a couple of years, the choice to continue his hospitality career in Melbourne – over his birthplace of Brisbane – was a pretty easy one.

“I found the hospitality scene was quite limited,” he says of Brisbane at the time. “No one was really taking it that seriously. I fell in love with Melbourne at a young age, so I made my way back down.”

That was 14 years ago, and the city was emerging as a coffee-driven hub. “I worked in quite a few places around Melbourne, with the idea that I always wanted to own my own café,” he says.

It was while working in a café in Armadale that his first opportunity to venture into catering arose. A distressed woman informed McIntosh that a catering company had pulled out of her son’s 18th birthday party job. It was two weeks away and 200 kids and 50 adults were at risk of going hungry.

With no catering experience, and just a little work in events, he took on the challenge, and called up his business partner Ben Avramides to help. The pair had met working together in a cocktail bar and continue to partner at Tommy Collins and other ventures.

At the time though, Avramides was just about to turn his back on the highly demanding hospitality industry altogether to work in construction, but McIntosh talked him into the job. The client’s specifications for the job included entertainment, music, DJs, the whole lot. “It turned out to be a pretty big event!”

With limited experience and time to prepare, the pair outsourced catering, the marquee and props and turned it around. “We put on an amazing event,” reminisces McIntosh. “That one was a Dukes of Hazzard party, strangely enough. Lots of hay bales and Daisy Dukes. I tracked down the Boss Hogg Cadillac,” he laughs.

“The next day, I got a call from someone who was at that party. They said, ‘Look, we saw you did an amazing job at this party; can you do this again, for our son?’”

Once again he talked Avramides into ‘one more job’, and the pair put on another hit party. Word of mouth spread quickly about the business. “Every time we did a job, while we were cleaning up the next day, we got another call,” McIntosh says.

Having outsourced catering up until that point, the two were yet to find a caterer they could gel with, but with their love of food and background in the industry, they figured, why outsource at all?

“We started doing it ourselves, and writing menus we could produce. It grew and grew from there. One job turned into about 10 in our first couple of months.”

The Tommy Collins catering brand was starting to rise. Evidence of this rapid growth has been the almost constant change of headquarter premises for the organisation, especially in those early years.

Like many businesses, it started in a lounge room. From there they moved on top of one of their existing businesses, the Little Ox café in Brighton. After opening the Hawk and Hunter café in Ripponlea, they moved the Tommy Collins kitchen operations there. As the team grew, eventually they were out of office space. Their final stop (to date) was a 400-square metre space that includes an office, meeting room and boardroom.

Home for the past two years, this space has enabled them to expand again, take on more top-shelf chefs and be more creative with designing menus.

What makes Tommy Collins stand out from other catering companies, says McIntosh, is the goal to create “restaurant quality food in a catering environment”. Which is, in a way, doing things the wrong way around. “What a lot of caterers do is think about logistics first and then write the menu. We like to write menus first, and then ask what steps we can take to make it work, and not take shortcuts.”

Image is another strong focus of the brand; Tommy Collins’ wait staff is made up of “young dudes dressed up in bowties and pocket squares”.

“It’s all about food and fashion. We’ve been trying to push ourselves as a lifestyle brand,” says McIntosh. “It’s trying to give that complete package of an event. The food, the styling, the music… It’s always been built around the brand.”

Finally, sustainability, responsible consumption and support of local produce and wine are strong selling points for the Tommy Collins enterprise. “We’ve become as sustainable as possible,” he adds, and this is an important drawcard for a growing number of environmentally conscious clients. Although, McIntosh argues, these are practices that should be followed by everyone in the industry.

“There’s so much waste out there. Everyone should be mindful and respectful of the food they’re using.”

A recent job he’s particularly proud of was the Secret Garden. After working ‘destination catering’ jobs all over Victoria, partners McIntosh, Avramides and Simon Winfield – who joined in 2011 – always wanted to pursue the idea of a semi-permanent event space where clients could hold their events and get the full Tommy Collins experience.

“Having your own venue, you’ve got the home ground advantage. You’ve got everything there. You can have three or four events on one night.”

The perfect opportunity came via a pop-up venue run by the Little Veggie Patch Co, which had set up an “amazing veggie garden saddling the car park and rooftop of some wasted space at the back of Federation Square”.

After brokering a deal with Little Veggie Patch Co, the guys “invested in a marquee, lighting, bathrooms, electricity, everything”.

Between October 2015 and April this year, they hosted about 50 events. One of these events was where they became friendly with Bank of Melbourne. “They held a couple of functions there,” explains McIntosh.

The atmosphere of the venue, and the events it played host to, nestled among Melbourne’s skyscrapers, was fantastic, he says.

“The beauty of that space was it was a rooftop garden in the middle of the city, but it was looking up at the city, as opposed to being on a rooftop looking down.”

This upcoming season will see the Secret Garden grace a new location with its presence, Melbourne Docklands’ Central Pier.

“That’s our next big thing. We found a new spot down there, we’ve just got to set up a few places on the pier, it should be pretty spectacular.”

In his 14 years since moving to Melbourne permanently, McIntosh has built something of a hospitality empire with partners Avramides and Winfield. Tommy Collins catering is thriving, and current café ventures include Little Collins Café, the Hamptons Bakery in Hampton, foodie favourite Sth Central Social and Dining in South Yarra and Schmucks Bagels, which has locations on Guests Lane in the CBD and in Docklands.

And he still reckons Melbourne’s better than Brisbane, and that’s unlikely to change. “It’s the way Melbourne’s set up, where every suburb’s got its own High Street. In Brisbane, every suburb’s got a shopping centre.”

McIntosh says Melbourne really gets behind small business, and each suburb has its own café, or a couple of cafés, or a local bar. You can just hang out in your area if you want, or you can go into Collingwood and go down Smith Street, or Brunswick Street in Fitzroy, or hang out in Windsor,” he offers as examples of thriving Melbourne social hubs.

Melbourne “has an awesome culture” he says. There just always seems to be something happening, and Tommy Collins is often behind the fun.

If you’re looking for expert advice in the hospitality, leisure or accommodation industry, please contact Steve Chapman, Relationship Director at Bank of Melbourne on 9274 4873.