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Changing Careers: Coogee Wine Room’s Tom Hardwick

The former lawyer unpacks his journey from corporate Melbourne to a wine bar in Sydney.

Tom Hardwick started his career as a commercial lawyer in Melbourne and jumped between consulting, logistics, investment banking and property funds management before launching his own childcare business in 2004, Guardian Childcare & Education.

“I’ve changed jobs every four years because I tend to get a bit restless and look for new opportunities,” he says.

What started as “a bit of a hobby” eventually grew into a childcare organisation with 3000 employees servicing over 20,000 families. Now, Hardwick’s thirst for a new challenge is leading him to open a wine bar in Sydney’s east, Coogee Wine Room.

“I’ve always been passionate about wine; this is one of those things my wife and I said we’d like to do if we ever had the time,” he says. “I like building a business, so it’s nice to go small again and start from scratch.”

“Living in Coogee, there aren’t many good joints for locals,” he explains. “There are a lot of tourist spots and cheap spots for backpackers, so we want to provide something a bit more grown up and European for the Coogee community.”

Hardwick says one of the best ways to prepare for a move into hospitality is to immerse yourself in environments that reflect your vision for a venue.

“It’s not too hard – you rock up, visit a few places and talk to the people behind the bars and start learning a few things,” says Hardwick. “I’ve taken notes from all the places we’ve visited over the last three or four years and learned in preparation.”

He’s also spent time in Europe – “the home of the great wine bar” – where drew inspiration from Spain, France and Italy, “probably the countries that do it best”.

“You’re encouraged to learn, taste and try different things, whether that’s with half glasses or a half bottle,” he continues. “A wine bar is about learning the wines, so you should be able to have a few different samples by drinking them in various ways.”

He’s also done research at home to understand more about catering to an Australian audience. “I had a chat to the guys at MoVida in Melbourne, who have done a couple of great Spanish tapas bars down there, and got some tips from them. I’ve had a chat to a few wine wholesalers to [get] that perspective of the business as well.

“I’ve found that if you reach out, there are always people in the industry who will offer their time to share knowledge and wisdom, so it’s good to get their insight.”

With more than 400 wines on offer, Hardwick says he wants Coogee Wine Room to offer a relaxed learning experience to guests.

“It’s a wide world of wine and if you live in Coogee you can’t necessarily get out there to see it all, so we want to bring that to the area,” he says. “It’s our first one so we want to achieve success, survive and still be here in 10 years’ time.”

Hardwick offers some tips for others considering a career move. First off, it’s important to surround yourself with experienced people.

“Working in childcare, I learned that it’s good to get the best people to run a venue on a day-to-day basis,” says Hardwick. “[At Coogee Wine Room] I’ve got a very experienced chef and front-of-house manager who have opened venues before, so it’s not an entirely new experience for them.”

Training offered by large companies can also be beneficial. “If you get the chance to work in a big company that has good training and systems, it’s a good thing to do,” he says. “It’s not essential, but I’ve found if you want to run a small business you should start in a big business and get the benefit of training.”

And it’s important to approach a career change with an open mind and a willingness to learn. “Get as much experience as you can, talk to as many people as you can and learn from people who have done it before. Do your homework and come prepared.”

Hardwick says he’d eventually like to expand Coogee Wine Room’s offering – potentially into online retail or a deli – but he’s focused on getting the business off the ground in the first year or so. He offers one more bit of advice for anyone hesitant about a drastic career move: “Jump off the platform and have a crack; sink or swim. Back yourself.”

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