Tom Hay hasn’t eaten a scone in eight years. But who doesn’t love a humble scone, you might wonder? Try eating nothing but scones and pumpkin soup for weeks on end and you might begin to understand. That was the steady diet that Pip and Tom Hay subsisted on in their early days of starting The Farm Cafe at the Collingwood Children’s Farm in Melbourne. Nowadays they’re eating much better fare – and so are the hundreds of punters who flock to the cafe each week to enjoy its fresh, locally sourced and handmade food surrounded by a soothing farm landscape by the Yarra.
A creative soul and an ideas man met at a Melbourne pub and their attraction was obvious. The adventure that lay ahead for the young couple, however, was yet to be revealed.
Tom, who was studying marketing at the time, had heard through some friends who worked at the Collingwood Children’s Farm that it was going broke. Excited to putting his marketing skills into practice, he volunteered to help them find a way to make more money to stay afloat.
Conducting a survey, he discovered that caffeine-fuelled Melburnians would be more likely to visit the farm if it served a decent cup of coffee. So in 2005, he and Pip started volunteering at the farmers markets at the farm, selling coffee and scones out of the boot of their car. But the lack of income soon began to wear thin. “We had no money and we were barely eating anything other than scones,” Tom says of why these days he can barely even look at a scone. They begged the farm to pay them so that they could at least earn some money from their fundraising efforts. “They didn’t want to run a cafe, so they said no, but they said we could rent the building and have a go at starting a cafe ourselves,” Tom says.
He was instantly keen, but Pip – who was still trying to finish her master’s – needed some convincing. Helping Tom’s cause was the fact that Pip had grown up in farming country in rural Victoria and had always dreamed of running her own cafe. “I’m incredibly optimistic,” Tom explains. “And I usually take action before I’ve thought about things too much. So I convinced Pip to give it six weeks and I even made her sign a contract. She had saved $10,000 while she was at uni and – after only knowing me for around six months – she gave it all to me to basically get a bobcat in and make the cafe grounds. Her parents probably thought she was a little bit crazy!”
The six weeks skated by and by then Pip was hooked. “We’d be excited that we made 600 bucks because we could buy a fridge on eBay,” Pip laughs. “We were just so incredibly naïve and we loved it,” Tom adds. “We didn’t really think more than a few weeks ahead. We only had one kind of coffee, served in an IKEA mug, and we didn’t even really know how to make it. The scones were actually good, but it was all pretty rough and ready. The great thing about being in Melbourne was that people would come to the cafe and see that it was so obviously different from anything else and they’d come back the next week with ten of their friends.”
Intrigued by the bucolic surroundings of the cafe, people started to flock to the locale, where you can enjoy a breakfast of goat’s toast with beetroot relish, or a ploughman’s lunch, overlooking the farm in the company of nearby lambs and chickens. “You can see the cow walking past on the way to getting milked twicea day,” Pip explains. “We used to have a problem with the goats who would often charge through the cafe or they’d break out overnight and we’d get there in the morning and they’d all be standing on the tables!”
The pair were so enamoured by the farm that they decided to get married in the paddock next to the cafe in 2007. But the natural setting also means that the cafe is at the mercy of the seasons, meaning a rainy day is virtually a write-off. The costs of running a business, particularly in a market that demands premium organic produce, can also be challenging, and Tom still works on other projects on the side to keep the income steady.
The trials have all been worth it, he says, but that’s not to say he didn’t consider giving up. “There was a time when, every three months or so, I would go into a pit of despair about the cafe having no hope. But Pip is the most determined person I’ve ever met and she wouldn’t let me quit – I’d be begging her! I’m glad now that she didn’t.”
The ability to feel that fear and still keep going is what Tom now considers to be a sign of success. “Being able to suppress the fear of stuff not working out is something we’re quite practised at,” he says. “And now I think we’re quite immune to the fear of trying new things. But the best thing that the cafe has given us is the feeling that now we can just make up stuff and go for it.”
“I’m proud of the evolution of the cafe and the fact that we did it by ourselves with the community’s support,” Pip adds. “And I think another sign of its success is that the staff want to work there and they’re telling their friends to come and work there.”
After operating under a marquee for six years, they finally renovated last year to include a sheltered fit-out that still maintains a sense of being surrounded by the farm, as well as building a larger kitchen. Another growing aspect of the cafe is Tom’s pet project, a vintage blue Datsun ute that acts as The Farm Cafe’s catering vehicle. Comprising rustic country-style spreads, The Farm Cafe’s simple fare can now also be enjoyed at weddings and other events (thankfully, the farm animals don’t come along for the ride).
The confessed foodie in the partnership, Pip finds much of her inspiration online in places like Instagram and Pinterest. “All of the people I follow, whether they’re small or big, are doing amazing things with food,” she says. “That’s a huge part of my inspiration. I love good food and I’m really passionate about healthy food. And I love going to farmers markets – particularly the farmers markets at the Children’s Farm – and seeing people who are so passionate about things like rhubarb. I’ve started finding peace in the garden myself.”
The ideas man, Tom says he finds it difficult to find peace because his mind is always ticking away on a new concept or business plan. “I just like exploring ideas. I love the way business is a really interesting balance between different people’s needs. And if you get the balance right – whether it’s a cafe or a big company – it can be an amazing thing where everybody thinks they are getting a good deal. The best thing about the world at the moment is that inspiration comes from everywhere.”
The duo passionately believes in the law of reciprocity and that what you put into the world is what you’ll get back. “We practise that quite religiously as a deeply held personal belief,” Tom says. “And it’s amazing how it works in so many different ways.” Pip adds that it’s also important to follow your heart. “If you do that, the rest will work itself out,” she says. “I think that’s what we’ve done.”