August 9, 2013

Legendary Sydney pie shop Harry’s Cafe de Wheels goes global

IT’S the pie cart that became an Australian legend, and now it’s going global.

Harry’s Cafe de Wheels, the iconic harbourside food stall which has been serving up its famous pies with peas since the 1930s, is to expand into Asia and the United States.

In a reverse of the trend for foreign takeovers of Australian institutions such as Vegemite and Arnott’s biscuits, investors in Manila and the US are negotiating with Harry’s Cafe de Wheels owner Michael Hannah to take the name and the product to their countries.

Mr Hannah, who as a one-time Vietnam soldier was one of a long list of servicemen that frequented Harry’s since World War II, bought the business in 1988 and has expanded it into 10 franchises.

He flies out on Thursday to Manila to speak with a businessman who hopes to open Harry’s outlets in 12 shopping centres, as the first step in the pie shop’s expansion into Asia.

When he returns, Mr Hannah is meeting with an American conglomerate which wants to set up a bakery and shops on the US East Coast.

“The guy in Manila wants to establish a bakery up there too,” Mr Hannah said. “But we’re still in talks about that. I don’t see why we can’t produce the pies here.

“The pastry is made from Australian wheat and our beef pies are from grass-fed yearling topside which we butcher ourselves.

“Maintaining control of the quality is important, and you have to protect your recipes and methods.”

The Filipino businessman visited the Woolloomooloo Harry’s during the 2000 Sydney Olympics, fell in love with the idea, and had since been nursing a plan for his children to expand his company with a chain of shops in the expatriate-dominated Manila suburb of Makati.

Harry’s began life as a fast food caravan in 1938, serving naval personnel from nearby Garden Island, pub and club patrons and a string of celebrities.

Harry “Tiger” Edwards, nicknamed for his boxing prowess, opened the van to cater for Sydney’s lack of late night eating venues.

The phrase “Cafe de Wheels” came about as the city council of the day insisted mobile food caravans move a minimum of 12 inches a day. Harry dutifully obeyed.

It served pie’n’pea floaters, pies with mashed peas, and the “Tiger” pie – pies with peas and mashed potato on top – and crumbed sausages, and became popular with soldiers, sailors, cab drivers, police officers and blue collar workers, as well as judges, politicians and visiting celebrities.It is a unique piece of Sydney’s history, the stuff of legend as a place where ordinary people could rub shoulders with the rich and famous.

“Harry’s was a meeting place where social classes intersected,” Mr Hannah said. “It represented something quintessential about the personality of Sydney.”

International diners at Harry’s over the decades have included Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Robert Mitchum, Shirley MacLaine, Phyllis Diller, Colonel Sanders, Olivia Newton-John and Russell Crowe.

It even has a song written about it, by Peter Blakely, whose debut album of the same name went platinum.

Mr Hannah, who has also expanded the menu to curried and chicken pies, said Australians and other Westerners were part of a booming expat population in the Philippines, as well as China and India.

“And the American group that works with Disney and Michael Eisner – they took on Sara Lee [cakes] – believe Harry’s has the potential to go world wide,” he said.

“I believe if you can make it here you can make it over there – yep, it’s a reverse of what Frank Sinatra sang.”

Source:, Candace Sutton, 29 July 2013

Harry’s Cafe de Wheels is a Sydney institution and an Australian legend, where ordinary people rub shoulders with the rich and famous while dining on a late-night pie’n’peas. Picture: Phil Rogers

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