Circling the Wagons

Welcome to Thornbury, where beer garden meets food truck park.

By Eileen Ormsby. Photography by Jim Wilde.

On a balmy Thursday evening families, friends, artists and locals mingle in a converted car factory on High Street Northcote. Most hold a beer or cocktail in one hand; in the other, something tasty from one of the food trucks arranged around the courtyard like a wagon circle.

Some have brought along the family pooch, and are taking advantage of the wisdom of a local dog behaviour expert, who is providing lessons in good manners to both dogs and owners. A group of visitors from south of the river stop in on their way to a gig at the Croxton across the road. A retro sign, reminiscent of a 50s drive-in fast food joint flashes high above the crowd…

Welcome to Thornbury

It may have the look and feel of a pop-up festival, but Welcome to Thornbury is a bar, licensed for over 700 people. It is also Melbourne’s largest – and only permanent – food truck park. More importantly, Welcome to Thornbury is a community. The design of the venue means people feel comfortable gathering as they would in a public precinct or a park, it attracts passers-by, as well as those deliberately looking for a bar or something to eat.

“What we’re proudest of as a business is Welcome to Thornbury evolving to be a great community destination for people,” says CEO Dehne Bingham (pictured left), acknowledging that the venue brought in a different demographic than he and his partners originally expected. “Right from when we opened, we seemed to attract a lot of young families, pets and local groups from the area.”

Thursday night’s ‘Real Dogs of Darebin’ is one way of connecting with the neighbourhood. A local dog trainer has set up his ‘Good Dog’ residency, and the bar runs raffles and giveaways, to raise money for animal welfare. The locals love it.

“I’m sure some people tell their partners that they’re off for a 10-kilometre walk with the dog, and they’ve actually come 300 metres down the road to sit in the beer garden and have a beer,” laughs Scott Assender (pictured right), business partner and the man in charge of running Welcome to Thornbury.

The site is large enough that the team can offer space to artists for no cost. Once a month, local creators set up stalls to sell their wares in a boho market. The team is also looking at providing low-cost offices for start-ups, to help entrepreneurs get a bit of a leg-up. “We feel like we’ve become a community space rather than a business in the area, which is a really cool feeling,” Bingham says.


FROM BURGERS WITH LOVE

Welcome to Thornbury is a natural progression for Bingham and his partners Assender, Peter Lalor, Myles Munro and Daragh Kan, founders of the Mr Burger chain of food trucks.

Bingham’s love affair with the burger began over a decade ago, when the boy from Bendigo moved to Canada in 2005. By the time the inclement weather and desire to set down roots saw him return to Australia, Bingham was Director of Purchasing and Distribution at Canadian restaurant chain A&W.

His hospitality career flourished, but his entrepreneurial spirit saw him looking for an alternative to the established corporate chains. He turned his attention to the food truck scene. “There was a lot of innovation coming out of that part of the market. I was really interested in getting involved in a business in its early growth phase.”

Bingham was fortunate to meet two men whose interests, vision and way of doing business were aligned with his. Munro and Kan had started Mr Burger in 2012, after eating their way through as many food trucks and burger joints in San Francisco, New York, Austin and Miami as they could.

A BREEDING GROUND FOR ENTREPRENEURSM

The food truck industry is booming, seeing exponential growth over the past decade. It attracts the young and entrepreneurial, and the Melbourne market is by no means saturated yet.

Food trucks have developed to cater to the increasingly discerning palates of their customers. Chefs are discovering food trucks as an opportunity to try out concepts before committing to a bricks and mortar restaurant. The lower outlay means chefs and high profile hospitality people can take greater risks.

Bringing together the two worlds in which the founders had the most experience – food trucks and bars – has produced a venue like no other in Melbourne. With a rotating roster of food trucks, there are seven different cuisines on offer at any one time.

The bulk of Welcome to Thornbury’s profits come from selling drinks at the bar. This means rental costs for the trucks can remain low, something Bingham says is important. The owners of Mr Burger see rival food trucks as a business opportunity rather than competition. Indeed, in March 2016, Welcome to Thornbury hosted the Burger Invitational as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, where Melbourne’s six best burger trucks battled it out side by side. It was a sell-out event.

The food truck operators are a collaborative and tight-knit community – if one does well, they all do well. “We often use the Welcome to Thornbury beer garden to talk about trade industry issues,” Assender says. “We are conscious of making sure that all of the food truck operators have really healthy businesses, because if we want to build another Welcome to Thornbury, having good strong operators in the truck industry is really important.”

WELCOME TO…?

Bingham admits that the team have their eye on another site, but until it is finalised, he is keeping tight-lipped on where the next ‘Welcome To’ suburb will be. Finding the ideal property for the concept is not easy, and Bingham is determined that each one be a perfect fit for the area, so that it, too, can become an integral part of the community.

The former car manufacturing site that houses Welcome to Thornbury has just the right mix. It is in an up-and-coming area with a population that cares about cuisine and demands high standards. It is in a spot that has a good amount of traffic, and is easy to get to by public transport.

“It’s a little bit of magic, right there in High Street,” Bingham says.

Bank of Melbourne’s hospitality specialists have detailed understanding of the challenges and opportunities across all aspects of the hospitality industry. This team is the reason Bank of Melbourne enjoys its reputation for providing banking services and solutions to clients that include some of Victoria’s most recognised restaurateurs and hoteliers. Please contact Steve Chapman, Relationship Director on 0478 491 488 to find out more.