Nick Dimitrokallis’ working day starts at 5am. That’s seven days a week. Before dawn, when Nick opens the door of the Melbourne Bakehouse, the business he has owned and managed for the past six years, the cooks have been in since 4.30, and the bakers, who have worked overnight, left an hour before.
As the sun rises, the tradies, builders and business-types appear, eager for coffee and a breakfast-bite. By 8am, the Bakehouse is buzzing. The regulars rarely need to give their order, Nick knows just what they want. It’s that kind of place: a cafe right smack bang in the heart of a community in more ways than one.
Though most will know the Bakehouse as their favourite cafe, with great coffee and the best-value selection of cakes and pastries on Port Melbourne’s Bay Street, Nick Dimitrokallis’ bakery business which employs a 20 person staff, is also one of Melbourne’s most successful producers and wholesale suppliers of fine cakes.
With distribution of its products into country Victoria, and city-wide across Melbourne (including a daily supply to David Jones), the investment Nick made in 2005 is paying dividends big time.
There’s an easy-going but determined approach to life which shines out from the articulate Dimitrokallis as he tells me about the origins of the business.
“It was originally further down the street,” says Nick, who was born and bred in the neighbourhood. “It was run down. I thought if I can turn it around, I’d look for another premises. Luckily this site came up and I transferred the whole business here, with a different vision of what I wanted.”
The son of a lithographer, Nick was born on Christmas Eve 1965 in Melbourne’s Queen Victoria hospital. Nick’s family story is typical of his generation: “My mother came off the ship here in 1962 when she was 18. Dad came out in 1964. In those days, Greeks came off the ship at Station Pier and they needed a job the next day, so they all ended up either in Tom Piper – a big food processing plant, or General Motors, Kraft Foods or Chrysler.”
“50 per cent of the neighbourhood were Greek. There were thousands here. I remember there were four kafeneia nearby. Dad went to work at Kraft first, then later got a job as a printer, mum worked at Repco.”
Nick remembers Port Melbourne in his childhood as a very different place from today. “You learned about life very quickly here in the sixties and seventies, it was a rough area. There were wharfies and a lot of criminals, but being a large Greek community we all stuck together, so it was quite safe, but you still had to toughen up.”
Nick attended the local schools until he was 12, at which point the family headed back to Europe, to give Greece another go. “It was a culture shock for sure living in Greece after coming from Middle Park,” says Nick, “but it was a very valuable experience for me. You matured quickly, you became aware of politics, everything and anything that was happening around you. Today, you see young people’s only concerns are if they’re going to watch MasterChef on TV, or play with their DS. In Greece at 13 you were a man.”
Nick lived in Pireaus for three years, before moving back to Australia in 1981. “My parents saw Greece was still a very difficult country to bring up children. We were able to come back and start over again.”
Back at school in Middle Park, in Year 12, Nick wrote an essay called ‘Who am I?’ “I got an ‘A’ for it – I wrote about my time living in Greece where everybody called me ‘Skippy’. I was an Aussie to them, yet here I was an ethnic wog. ‘Who are you? You’ve got a Greek name, but you’re not an aussie,’ they’d say.”
Nick sums up his early experience caught between two cultures as “character building” and still talks of the enormous gratitude he feels to his parents for the path they took.
“I’m grateful that I’ve gone through all this in life.” Shortly after returning from Greece, Nick got his first job in the evenings, working as waiter in an Italian Restaurant in Melbourne’s Fitzroy Street. “It was very hard street back in the 80s, the hookers, the drugs, and there I was 17 years-old, wide-eyed, earning $300 for three nights work. I was on top of the world, it was great.” On leaving school, Nick began a batchelor of arts degree at La Trobe University, whilst continuing to work in the restaurant. “I didn’t believe in living off my parents, I’d rather be
independent. But Nick admits, he soon found academic life wasn’t his forte, and rather than fall asleep in lectures, working his way up in a profession was the way to go.
He got a job at Coles Myer working in distribution, and spent seven years working his way up the first rungs of the company’s management ladder. But the corporate life also wasn’t for Nick: “I could see it was shark’s territory.”
Finally Nick Dimitokallis found his vocation: running his own business.
The first of his own commercial ventures were Charcoal Chicken outlets, where Nick honed his management skills.
In 2004 the Melbourne Bakehouse was for sale. “I took a chance and it’s grown from there,” says Nick, who puts down his commercial success to a tip an Italian trader on Sydney Road gave him way back.
“He said, ‘a business is like a new-born baby, you have to look after it. If you neglect a new-born baby it’s going to die.’ And that’s it: you have to nurture your business. And if you do the right thing, it will all come back to you.”
Nick’s day ends around 8pm.
By then the bakers are back, preparing the 140 savoury and sweet product lines the Bakehouse has become famous for. Tomorrow the regulars will be back early as usual and Nick, as always, barista and businessman, will be ready and waiting to welcome them.
By the way, at the Bakehouse, you’ll also find some of the finest Kourabiedes in Victoria. Hardly surprising. Kaliorexi!
The Melbourne Bakehouse, 210 Bay Street, Port Melbourne ,Vic 3207. www.melbournebakehouse.com.au