Growing up in the British Midlands, Brien Trippas felt no particular passion for food. But when his father booked him into the Birmingham College of Food, he knew he had found his calling.
Many people run a restaurant well. Running two restaurants is more than twice as difficult, running three is even harder and running four is almost impossible. To succeed, you need strong stock-control systems and people you can trust, and you need them in your business from the start.
Early in my career, I spent two years working in the oilfields of Oman, at the facility’s European club. I was in my early 20s and a long way from home. There were a lot of things that were very wrong. For example, a third of our deliveries, which came in by boat, would go missing—they wouldn’t even arrive. So we had to devise entirely new stock-control methods.
When that job ended, I met a rigger from the oilfield who wanted to drive around the world. I thought that sounded like a jolly good idea. We bought a kombi and, after 18 months and several bouts of hepatitis and dysentery, we arrived in Darwin with eight dollars between us.
I worked on a barge as a cook and saw all the Aboriginal missions in the Northern Territory. We bought an old FJ Holden and travelled to the Whitsundays, where we got a job caretaking an island whose resort had been blown down by Cyclone Ada.
We had been there for 12 months when my mother wrote to inform me she was coming to visit. I told her to meet me in Melbourne. That was the circuit breaker; I needed to get back into the industry, otherwise I would waste all of my experience and education.
I worked as state manager of an industrial catering company called Sutcliffe Catering, sourcing clients then running canteens in Melbourne. I built Victoria up to about 20 sites, then became general manager, in Sydney, of about 60 sites. Six years later, they sold the business, so I was out of a job.
Peter Rowland told me he wanted to start an industrial catering and staff canteen business in Sydney. One of our contracts was the Sydney Opera House. When I started with Peter, that contract came up and we won it. We secured the Powerhouse Museum, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Museum of Sydney and more. Things looked good. Then in 1990, the business was sold. Once again, I was out of a job.
At Rowland, I had employed Kim White as operations manager. She and I launched Trippas White in 1990. Our first contract was the State Library of New South Wales. Then we got a sandwich shop in Sydney’s Skygarden. We developed the business from there, always with our focus on quality.
I was never interested in running a single restaurant and getting home at midnight. I wanted to take a helicopter view of my business. How can you build a business if you’re working in it rather than on it? So we had to make sure the systems and the people were right.
We continue to evolve. Some years ago we realised things were great for four months of the year because we were in public spaces such as Centennial Park and the Botanic Gardens, but the other eight months were not great. We needed to balance it out.
Somebody suggested schools, which didn’t immediately make sense. But when we’re busy schools are quiet, and when we’re quiet they’re busy. Other suggestions included hospitals and airline catering. Being able to view our growth without blinkers has driven healthy diversification.
A long time ago I joined the board of The Restaurant & Catering Association because I felt it was worthwhile putting back into the industry that has provided me such great delight. I still sit on the board for the national body and on the executive committee for NSW.
The industry is continuing to grow, but I’d like to see better training and I’d like to see the public demanding more of our industry. Australians are content with mediocrity. In Europe, people want to become a waiter because it is a respected and well-paid career. They are proud of it. When this becomes reality in Australia, we will be in a very good place.