Various rumours about bust-ups and partnership breakdowns are, quite un-sensationally, fiction, I’m told. The rest of the story – from the horse’s mouth, no less – doesn’t need a scandal to be riveting. It’s a good old yarn on its own.
Story goes that 12 years ago Iain Munro, a Scottish-born hospitality all-rounder fresh from a five-year stint travelling around the globe, falls in love with an Aussie girl who hauls him back to the homeland. Sick of the industry and fresh from the altar, Munro and his new wife Claire decide to travel the country. Four years on, the pair find themselves up north (less than inspired, truth be told), when Munro sees an ad for a small 15–20 cover venue in fledgling Seddon, a mere 2482km south, so the pair jump in the car and drive all the way to Melbourne.
Munro grins as he retells the story over a coffee in one of his venues, Wee Jeanie, on Anderson Street in Yarraville. “We were up in Airlie Beach,” he recalls. “I was always searching for something and then we found Seddon.
“We hated it up there so we drove down through the middle of the country to Melbourne, drove straight to the business. It was a good entry, so we took it.” Just like that.
A personal loan and a heavy dose of gumption later and the pair was off, Iain cooking and Claire as barista. The place took off and soon enough, Yarraville was losing locals, who were walking or driving to its suburban neighbour to grab a meal and enjoy what Munro describes as the “very organic” nature of the place. “It was really great,” he says. “I remember early on we had less than 20 customers. It was literally just Claire and I. On our first busy day, a regular customer jumped up and started washing dishes to help out.
“The widows would literally steam up, it was such a tiny place and the electricity kept tripping out. It was amazing. It was crazy. We learned as we went along.”
They clearly needed to expand. But having just had their first son, and without an excess of cash, the opportunities were scant. Enter Andy Smith as business partner and the three enjoyed a further two years of business together before the Munros sold their share to Smith and Cornershop was born.
Cornershop was an instant success, but after a disaster with a chef early on, Munro found himself in the kitchen once more before eventually finding head chef David Danks (a fellow Scot), known for his work at Guernica just before the turn of the century and later for helping the share plate phenomena become what it is today.
The chef’s progressive approach helped make Cornershop busier than ever. However, combined with the locals’ feverish appetite for Cornershop’s take-away coffee (8kg a day), service started to suffer. “For such a small place, that’s a lot of coffee,” Munro says.
In a serendipitous turn of events, the old Yarraville Records space was made available, with everyone looking at it leaning towards a café, so Munro grabbed it, as any savvy hospitality man would do, and turned it into an overflow type of destination, a la Tiamo and Tiamo II.
Did it work? “Yeah, it has,” Munro says with a smile.
Munro has a soft spot for the venue he called Wee Jeanie, named after a character in a sweets jingle back at home – a tune his mother used to sing to him as a child. And it isn’t just the name that conjures sentiments for Munro. The very nature of how the business operates is very similar to the early days of Le Chien, steamy windows and all.
There is a toaster, a grill, a microwave and a coffee machine. It’s very bare-basics, with the aromas of the food drifting into a compact, clean white space that overlooks a mature oak tree. “Because of its size, you can feel the ebbs and flows in service – when it’s busy, when it’s not,” Munro says.
As if he didn’t have enough on his plate, Munro has just opened Bruin, in nearby Williamstown.
“It’s doing well, yeah,” he says, although admitting he might have bitten off more than he can chew for the moment.
“I would hope Williamstown could use a place like Bruin,” he says of the smart eatery, which like Cornershop, pushes boundaries without re-inventing the wheel. It’s an approach to food that he and his executive chef Danks are now renowned for.