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Bruce Keebaugh: The chief happiness hunter

bruce keebaugh the big group

Co-founder and Director, The Big Group

"Melbourne Cup is one of the best events globally because of our unique Australian culture, energy and zest for life. There’s nothing like it in the world."

To brand yourself a Chief Happiness Hunter is a big promise. Unless you’re Bruce Keebaugh for whom it’s a way of life, and one that he lives to the hilt, especially when it involves The Big Group. The hospitality company he founded over two decades ago delivers, not just any brand of happiness, but one that springs from “unimaginable, unforgettable experiences.”

In a few days, Bruce and his team will be unleashing their big vision and even bigger passion for that kind of happiness at the Spring Racing Carnival. It is as Bruce puts it, a “seriously mad time” for them yet he doesn’t sound the least bit frazzled.

This is mainly because he is thrilled at having once again pushed the boundaries with another extraordinary TBG creation this year. It could also be because his visiting Harvard colleagues will be experiencing Melbourne Cup for the first time.

“I’m so excited for them to see it because it’s entirely unique. It’s one of the best events globally. And it’s because of our unique Australian culture and our energy and zest for life. There’s nothing like it in the world.”

When did you start going for the races?

I started going when I was a little boy, really. Long before I became part of the hospitality industry. We would have a picnic party at the races.

How soon after TBG launched did you become the Victoria Racing Club's preferred supplier?

We started our company about 28 years ago and we pretty much started catering at the Spring Racing Carnival straightaway. It was an event at which our clients always entertained and attended and they needed hampers so we stepped in.

Then businesses started seeing the value in entertaining at sporting events. One of our first clients was a company called Louis Vuitton who used to do beautiful entertainment in the Birdcage. It was one of the first marquees we catered for.

What do you remember most about the early days of being involved in the Spring Racing Carnival?

Very, very early starts. We used to get up, I think, at about three in the morning and our kitchens used to run 24 hours a day. They still do but I don’t go in as much as I used to. We’d get to the racecourse when it was still dark to finish the flowers, move in the champagne and bring in the sandwiches. It used to rain a lot, you know. There was one year when the Birdcage and marquees flooded and we were all in gumboots. That was probably my most memorable year.

How do you push the boundaries year after year?

Louis Vuitton was very much a leader in the industry when it came to creating extraordinary experiences for their guests, and we took their philosophy and applied it to other corporate brands like Emirates, Myer and in later days, Lexus. We tried to create experiences for guests that were brand-related but also appropriate within the hospitality environment.

We now bring in amazing collaborators from well-known stylists to celebrity chefs and architects to design an extraordinary space. It’s really about collaboration and working with the best like-minded people who are appropriate for the master plan. That’s what really drives us forward. We never stop pushing the boundaries because we believe there’s always room for innovation.

Do you have a favourite year at the Spring Racing Carnival?

You know what, that’s a really interesting question. I’ve been out there recently watching the set up and there’s so much building going on now. I loved the area when it was more simple. Obviously it wasn’t as profitable but it had a certain charm that I thought was very beautiful which perhaps is lost now. But it has a greater energy these days then it did then. You can’t have everything at once.

TBG has a unique insight into what goes on behind the scenes during the races. What would we see if we looked through your eyes?

I suppose the only way to look at our brief is that it is very aligned to the circus. When people go to the circus, they see all the beauty and theatrics. Behind that beauty is all the craziness. It’s full of crazy people, artists, builders, boxes and rubbish. That’s what I see, all the crazy bits. We’re the offset between the crazy people at the back of house and the crazy people at the front of house. And our job is to present the beauty.

What part of the set up and the day itself do you most look forward to?

I think 6.01pm is my favourite time when the liquor license stops and we’re all ready to go home with our very sore feet! That said, I adore it when we’ve set up everything and it looks beautiful, especially on Derby Day. It’s 10 o’clock and people come in and see for the first time all the work that’s been done in this creative environment. I really do enjoy that.

How are you and TBG shaping and taking Melbourne’s food and dining industry to the next level?

Our key difference is that we are very much adaptors. And chameleons, I suppose. We don’t ever sit in the one spot for too long so we’re looking at global trends and seeing what’s going on, and then we have a delightful ability with budgets to be able to create anything on any day. So we’re not bound by one restaurant or one bar or one venue. We’re changing it up all the time so we have the luxury of being ahead of most trends.

Are Melburnians the most sophisticated foodies in Australia?

Look in many ways Australians are, you know…when I travel I don’t see much innovation in food. In America, yes. Most food trends come out of there but I think Australia, because our tradition of immigration has given us such great layers of culture and approach. We’re not scared to be different in the way we dine and we’re much broader in our outlook.

Our dining scene is very vibrant and Melburnians are very sophisticated in the way they dine. I’m in Sydney at the moment and I’ve always found it difficult to find great places to eat here whereas in Melbourne, they’re a dime a dozen.

In A Snap

Favourite Aussie phrase: “Bloody ripper!”

Favourite place to dine alone in Melbourne: Rockpool Bar & Grill at Crown.

Most overrated food in Melbourne: I’m not answering that. You want me to get shot?

Blue algae latte, turmeric latte or black latte? Turmeric latte. It’s good for your digestive system.

Main image credit: Marnie Haddad Photography

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