In primary school, at the end of every year, it would inevitably come to that time when your parents had to scrounge around for a last-minute gift to give your teacher Ms Fletcher. Ms Fletcher had done an absolute banger of a job that year, like she had every year. Not only had she gotten you out of your shell, but she’d also made you proud of your spelling progress. Ms Fletcher deserved more than a mug that said “World’s Best Teacher,” and far more than a measly box of Favourites. More, even, than a singular bottle of wine. Ms Fletcher deserved a whole goddam Christmas hamper.
We’ve all had a Ms Fletcher in our lives: that one teacher who turned your life around, or that uncle who helped you out, or that nurse who looked after your grandpa when he was dying. That one person who you didn’t know what to get as a thank you gift at Christmas, so you took yourself to Target and found an aisle filled with Christmas hampers.
Christmas hampers are as integral to the Australian festive season as BBQ smoke, Paul Kelly, and a bottle of white that someone "got from Adelaide, so it must be pretty good”. And so, to delve down into the deepest recesses of nostalgia and see where Christmas gets made, I visited a Christmas hamper factory.
Just to be clear, I’m not talking about Chrisco here. No: this is not the “pay a few dollars every week for a Christmas lunch” scheme. Instead we're talking handpacked, salt-of-the-earth style hampers made right here in the Melbourne suburb of Springvale. This is InterHampers, which as far as I'm concerned is the beating heart of the Australian hamper scene.
The owner of the factory, as it turned out, was not Santa but a guy named Harry. Harry brought me into the boardroom, gave me a coffee and said “don’t over stir it—I added a half sugar just for you” and then winked.
Harry and his brothers used to run a Greek deli on Toorak Road, and it was there that he had the idea to start packaging his favourite items into baskets all wrapped up in plastic with bows. Harry was making hampers for Christmas and selling them at the deli, and eventually the hampers became so popular that he decided to make them his main business 31 years ago.
After meeting Harry, I met up with another guy named Phil, who walked me down aisles stacked with boxes. Before Phil was in the Christmas hamper business Phil used to be a vinyl DJ called DJ Phil Diamond.
Then, as we turned a corner I met all the people who do the handling and wrapping of the hampers. They’d all been working for InterHampers for about 20 or 25 years each. "They’re in the happy business," Phil told me, and it seemed he was right. Everyone I met was happy and laughing. They were clearly all friends.
Phil then pointed out their so-called “King of the Giblets,” which was a bizarre and terrifying Christmas elf sitting on a high chair, covered in Christmas baubles, watching over everyone. The King also had a smaller elf-man, similarly covered in Christmas baubles, sitting on a lower rung beneath him. I wasn't comfortable around either of them.
“We manufacture for all the stores,” Phil explained as we walked on. “Target, Kmart, Big W, Myer, David Jones. We make hampers pretty much exclusively for all retailers. We start putting together the range of hampers early—we’ve got Target coming in next week to start looking at next year’s Christmas—by the end of February we’ll know pretty much what the retailers need, and from then we go to a trade show in China to start shopping around for the vehicles—the baskets, you know. We try to use only Australian made products in the hampers wherever we can.”
InterHampers sell over a million hampers a year, and a lot of companies look to them as a way to market their products.
Next, Phil next showed me the machine that shrunk wrapped the cellophane onto the baskets, but said I wasn’t allowed to photograph it properly as he said photographing it will “give away its secrets.” This was some real Willy Wonka shit.
Everyone at the factory, whether on the floor or in the offices, had been working with Harry for many years, sometimes decades. Marly here said she'd worked at InterHampers for 23 years.
When it came to what’s inside the hampers, it’s all down to Harry. He chooses everything that goes in every single one. “He doesn’t muck around,” says Phil. “It’s like every single hamper that comes off the production line is like his little child. And if you drop it, or bump it, or put it in a box the wrong way—well…” He shook his head.
I asked Phil if they go on wine tastings together to find the best bottles and vineyards. Phil laughed and said “they’re not wine tastings,” apparently meaning they drink a crap load of wine. “Harry’s really good there. He really understands wine,” Phil said. “He’s the guy who will know what wine needs to go where. But generally speaking people are looking for what’s popular. We’re using a bit more sparkling wine at the moment. People seem to be drinking more of it now; Prosecco for example. We try to move with the times. We also try to get ahead of the times. We’re working with a retailer to make a gluten-free, vegan, and low carb hamper. And sales are through the roof.”
Phil finally ended my tour at the warehouse shop: a small selection of hampers that you can buy direct from the warehouse, if you happen to be in the area.
Finally, Harry gifted me a chocolate-filled hamper which contained a block of Lindt salted caramel dark chocolate, chocolate covered coffee beans, chocolate dipped hollow wafers, chocolate sided sweet biscuits, chocolate-cream filled cookies, and chocolate seashells. And after the tour I took it home to my housemates, who treated me like Saint Nick himself. And I thought, as I watched my housemates demolish my first, only, and favourite hamper, that Phil and Harry were right. They really were in the happy business.