Toni Alford’s a beauty school dropout turned bar manager of one of Melbourne’s biggest food truck parks, Ascot Lot. When I first met her, she had no idea how to properly pour a frothy one but could talk underwater with a mouthful of marbles. It was the venue’s opening night and they had a frozen beer line and a carpark packed full of thirsty punters ready to launch. Of course, as Malt Shovel’s beer ambassador, I jumped behind the bar and went elbow to elbow with the team. It was a stinking hot Melbourne day, I was giving on the job training and Toni took to it like a pro.
Now eight months on, Ascot Lot is a weekend staple for many – the largest drinking hall in Melbourne’s North West. Supercharged with colourful food trucks, live music and dog friendly festivities. Now Toni manages to pour an average of 600 beers on a weekend and tells everyone else what to do. She’s literally a bit of a legend here; everyone loves her and the way she runs the joint. On a sunny Summer’s day the Lot could be pumping with up to 400 people, the air hot and thick as soup, and Toni would be all smiles and chat, barely breaking a sweat. She just has this way about her that even if you didn’t know who she was, you’d know she ran this ship.
As a guest contributor for Meet The People, I swung ‘round to Ascot Lot so we could catch up, talk shop and she could boss me around a bit.
Before Ascot Lot you said you were working at a cafe and somehow within three months you were running four cafes and a factory. You’re a bit of a leader and I love that you’re a bit bossy and can pull people into line, but how did you figure out how to run a place as big as Ascot Lot?
“I live in Preston and have always been on the north-side of Melbourne. I’ve seen how other food truck parks work and stuff like that but when I got here I realised this was completely different. Originally, I was just working in the cafe part and somehow, once again, after two weeks I was the manager. So, I think I’m naturally inquisitive and just work things out. I mean, at the end of the day, all of hospitality is a guessing game you need to solve.”
I guess you wouldn’t exactly say beauty and hospitality are on the same spectrum of careers, but you’ve been working at Ascot Lot for a while now. What’s the best part about hospo for you?
“Yeah, I’ve been working here about eight months now. Before that, I was working a job that I hated and couldn’t be myself. But running Ascot Lot is great. Plus I don’t mind, actually I love telling people what to do and turns out I’m pretty good at it.”
Hahah, trust me I already know that! It seems like the team loves you here. I guess you’ve been a big part of helping Ascot Lot grow. What have you taken away from that experience?
“The greatest part is seeing the community we’re building. Like every week we’re getting the same crew back for beers and good times and I already know their drink orders. They come right up and say ‘hey’ to me like we’re old mates and we have a good old chat. So, it’s basically the fact that I get to be friends with people, they’re not just customers. And, when they’re in the area they bring forty more friends too.”
You’ve obviously learnt so much in the last eight months. I even know just from our regular catch ups how far you’ve come from that frozen beer line. You’re a natural when it comes to hospo, but what do you think your greatest skills are?
“Well, I love people. I can have a conversation with anyone. Having a beauty therapy background, you can small talk all day long, but the good thing is here, you can talk to anyone and being personable is not only enjoyable but actually helps grow the business. That’s a really good skill to have and it’s a win win, I guess. I’m pretty good at an up-sell too, not like a dirty car salesman but just being genuine – Like ‘Oh you want a pint? How about you get a jug?’. So, the talking part is probably my highest skill, even if it is a bit of rubbish sometimes.”
And what do you think have been the greatest highs about the job, apart from working with me that is…?
Haha, yeah Lofty of course, you’re alright I guess. But, no, honestly it is the sense of community. If I’m ever stuck or don’t know something, I can message someone like yourself and say ‘hey I need this’. I like talking to suppliers and those kinds of people just to be personal. Because it’s like a friendship, you do me a favour, I do you a favour. It makes it a lot more pleasant and that way it’s less like business. If you’ve got a friendship with them it makes life easier and then it never really feels like a job – it’s just fun.
Maybe, like Toni, you’re set to open a bar and wouldn’t mind some guidance. If you’d like Lofty or one of the other beer-nerd legends he works with to come out and lend some elbow grease – you can get in touch here.