Leo Thompson is a hospo lifer – and couldn’t be more proud of it. At 31, the co-owner of fast-paced, deli-style Melbourne eatery Nico’s has now worked in hospitality for over half of his life. At the age of 14 Thompson found himself eagerly stacking pancakes on Saturday mornings for his friend’s mum at her cafe in Coffs Harbour.

“I was obsessed with Jamie Oliver – still am,” says Thompson of his hospo awakening. He’d watch Oliver’s TV series The Naked Chef as religiously as other kids would watch The Simpsons. Every Friday he would make a different recipe from Oliver’s titular cookbook in the family kitchen.

“Since then, I’ve never not worked in hospo,” he says. Even when Thompson studied creative arts and a full-time acting course, he loved the side-hustle of hospo gigs. It soon blossomed into a career specialising in coffee.

“It gives me a chance to have that morning coffee routine, meeting people and chatting,” he says. “I love those 30-second conversations. I love that idea of building networks through the work I’m doing. That’s often through making people a coffee: a two-minute interaction that you can get so much out of it.”

That’s exactly how Thompson met his future business partner, Tom Peasnall. Thompson was looking after the Carlton cafe Bloom for a friend on maternity leave – Peasnell, one of the people behind both Takeaway Pizza and Dexter in Preston, was a regular. “He became another of these people I just hit it off with,” says Thompson. It helped that he raved to Peasnell about Takeaway Pizza without knowing Peasnall was behind it.

After his stint at Bloom wrapped, Thompson managed Seven Seeds’ CBD venture Brother Baba Budan. There he found himself serving Peasnell again, who by then was working at Peaches (since reborn as Dom’s) on Swanston Street. Noticing Thompson’s room-brightening talent for both coffee and customer engagement, Peasnell asked him about coming on board for Nico’s, a 7x7m sandwich shop that needed serious coffee game to compete in the CBD. Suddenly Thompson was part of a business-owning trio with Peasnell and Peasnell’s school mate Marcus DeSantis, all set to sling some of the most inventive sandwiches around.

Then came the pandemic. Nico’s did just a single day of trade before the first lockdown hit Melbourne, with little chance to accrue the regulars that would enable it to pivot to takeaway success in the months to come. But after some crucial scouting from DeSantis – “the location king,” according to Thompson – the trio found a temporary spot off Brunswick Street in Fitzroy. That pop-up did so well that the Fitzroy location has stuck around even after the CBD one finally reopened – and there’s a new spot in Brunswick East.

Nico’s success isn’t just due to the savvy adaptability of the team, but to the product. Taking cues from Aussie classics (the schnitzel), American-style subs and Japanese toppings, the menu has found its niche with classic items alongside limited edition offerings such as a prawn cocktail-inspired sandwich and a grilled cheese choc top for summer.

Coffee (and a selection of the baristas) comes from Thompson’s former longtime employer, Seven Seeds, coalescing into a dream team. “It’s this lovely, unassuming thing where people come and try one of these amazing sandwiches Tom has created,” says Thompson. “And then we get a write-up like, ‘Oh, the coffee is good too!’”

Despite managing his career progression during a pandemic, Thompson has loved making the leap from employee to business owner. He was the right fit at the right time for Peasnell and DeSantis, with whom he shares similar values and a commitment to growing the business, and entering into a joint venture with experienced operators was an easier alternative to going solo. The local support, and being able to link-up with like-minded partners in his community, was invaluable.

“I’m still in disbelief at times that I’m lucky enough to be considered part of the trio,” he says. “But I’ve also got to back myself.”

His advice for anyone wanting to make a similar leap? “Just talk to people,” Thompson says. “Talk to people in the industry who are doing it well. Find the people who inspire you, and don’t be afraid to reach out. Owning a business is a huge financial commitment, which can be super scary. But you’ve really got to go out and give it a crack. You’re not going to know unless you try.”

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