Lorne restaurateurs (from left) Robert Lowther, Kyle Holmer, Brett Graham, Matt Griffiths and Aaron Graham. Photo: Eddie Jim
THEY WANTED TO BRING quality no-fuss dining to Lorne, not reinvent the wheel but, on Christmas Day in 2006, when young dynamos Robert Lowther, then 22, and Brett Graham, 23, opened pint-size Pizza Pizza, they unconsciously shaped a new era of dining that would rejuvenate the popular coastal town.
Recently returned from overseas jaunts, the duo had expected to land summer jobs, as they always had, at one of the many eateries that serviced the 30,000-odd holidaymakers who flock to Lorne each summer.
Instead, armed with a $15,000 credit-card limit and sharing a Saab 900 prone to overheating, Lowther and Graham signed a lease on a quaint weatherboard shopfront, bought a second-hand pizza oven and opened Pizza Pizza.
The BOM burger from Bottle of Milk cafe in Lorne. Photo: Eddie Jim
"I can't remember that first summer, it was so full on," Lowther says, grinning.
"We'd stay back until midnight washing dishes, just hoping someone would come in and order another pizza."
And come they did.
With help from their families, and any friends willing to roll up their sleeves and top semolina-dusted pizza bases for a couple of hours, the pair's first foray into business was a triumph.
In six months they had made enough money to pack down Pizza Pizza, close for winter, and scour the globe for business ideas to bring back to their home town.
"We wanted to open another shop that was really easy, really quick and really good," Lowther says. "That's what people want when they're on holidays."
Seated outside their second, much larger, Lorne venture, The Bottle of Milk, the business partners exude a boyish eagerness that belies their innate business savvy.
The pair grew up working in Lorne's golden era of dining, the '90s, when the main drag hummed with hectic restaurants, including Chris's, Reifs, Marks and Kosta's Taverna. Graham's first job, scooping ice-cream at the games parlour, and Lowther's, making pastries at the Ozone Eatery, provided an introduction to the frenetic pace of Lorne summers.
"When I was 16, it felt like Lorne was really foodie," Graham reminisces.
He left Lorne to study economics and politics at uni before joining Lowther, who had worked in a string of restaurants during a backpacking adventure throughout Europe. When they returned to Lorne in 2005, the town had changed.
"We went out to get some food one evening and there was nothing open," Graham says.
"It felt like the town had given up."
Their second business, The Bottle of Milk, opened during schoolies week in 2008.
A hip cafe championing gourmet burgers, it proved to be a mid-tier eatery the town needed.
Now, The Bottle of Milk goes through about 50 kilograms of beef mince and 10 kilograms of coffee a day during summer.
Observing the pair's success, Graham's younger brother, Aaron, 23, and his mate Matt Griffiths, 28, bought Moons Espresso Bar in 2009. The pair saw scope for improvement at Moons, already a popular cafe with a reputation for towering pides and fresh juices.
"We were working together at Pizza Pizza when, mid-shift, Matt turned around and asked if I wanted to buy Moons with him," Aaron says with a smile.
When the opportunity arose to go into business himself at the age of 20, he didn't hesitate.
The young owners reinstated breakfasts, recharged the space with a youthful beachside vibe and reopened Moons on Melbourne Cup weekend.
"We had to open on Cup weekend because we had nothing. We needed money," Griffiths says. "It was scary but I had seen a gap when Brett and Rob opened the shop [Pizza Pizza] and knew as long as what we were serving was good, people would flock."
He was right. Lowther, Griffiths and the Graham brothers have forged a strong alliance that has kickstarted Lorne's dining scene.
During the January peak, it's not uncommon to see one of the boys in Lorne's main street, delivering a carton of soy milk or box of bacon borrowed from the other.
On their busiest day to date, the duo churned out 800 coffees with one person on the machine.
In their second summer, the pair identified a lack of family-friendly eateries open at night.
Calling on the skills of breakfast chef Kyall Holmer, another Lorne local, they collated a Mexican menu
and, as the sun set on another summer day, they swapped the signage, menus and drinks list so Moons Espresso Bar could morph into Butchy's Mexican. "It went really well, considering the weirdness of it all," Griffiths says.
"It confused people being a cafe during the day and a Mexican restaurant at night but it was a good way to do it because it gave us the confidence to know a Mexican restaurant would work."
The success of Butchy's Mexican persuaded Holmer, 24, who had studied graphic design, dabbled in landscaping and worked in numerous kitchens, to focus on hospitality.
In early 2012, when a small shopfront became available just off Lorne's main drag, Griffiths and Aaron offered Holmer a business partnership in a Mexican restaurant.
Holmer's father and brother pitched in, gutting the shop and fitting out the space with wooden booths and striking panel work. Mexican Republic opened in November and was an instant success.
Weeks into his first unrelenting summer as a Lorne restaurateur, he's looking relaxed. "I'm just going to take it as it comes," Holmer says.
"I'm in a pretty sweet place anyway, so it's not too brutal. At the end of it all, I can go for a swim."
They're quick to sweep aside any suggestion they've charted a new course for Lorne's dining scene, instead switching the focus to the town's future.
"It's getting busier and busier," Graham says, "and there's definitely room to grow."
Holmer, the newest recruit to Lorne's hospitality fray, agrees.
"You take risks in life. You only live once," he says.
"Besides, you can't hate going to work if it's fun, chilled and always pumpin'."
Something to satisfy the munchies
The Bottle of Milk, 52 Mountjoy Parade, Lorne
Phone: 5289 2005
TRY: The B.O.M burger (pictured). Aleaning tower of beef, bacon, cheese, tangy mayonnaise, beetroot, onion and lettuce, all sandwiched in a sourdough bun. The perfect surfer’s snack.
Mexican Republic, 1A Grove Road, Lorne
Phone: 5289 1686
TRY: The tostaditas. Cracking bite-size corn chips heaped with shredded pork, jalapenos, pickled onion and cheese, or chorizo and mushrooms, or prawns and chilli.
Moons Espresso Bar, 108 Mountjoy Parade, Lorne
Phone: 5289 1149
TRY: The Pest pide. Toasted Turkish pide stuffed with leg ham ribbons, Roma tomatoes, bocconcini and basil pesto.
Pizza Pizza, 2B Mountjoy Parade, Lorne
Phone: 5289 1007
TRY: Bingo Bango pizza. Crisp base smeared with napoli and topped with spicy salami, pancetta, fresh chilli, olives and caramelised onion.