StoriesWarwick Quinton

The Illegal Bakery Pt 2

StoriesWarwick Quinton
The Illegal Bakery Pt 2

The story of the Illegal Bakery so far could be summarised as follows:

'Sometimes, something's just gotta be done, and you don't have time to see if there's a rule applyin' to it' - Huckleberry Finn

The story of the Illegal Bakery continues!


Pretty soon some of the guys in a fruit and veggie shop across the road from Paddington Markets, B and J Lizard Fruiterers, got wind of our product, and asked if they could place orders. We procrastinated for a whole day, and took down some samples. The two partners, brothers, stood there and tasted every kind of bread we made right in front of us, chatted a bit, tasted some more - and then placed a huge order of our whole range of five different 'naturally leavened' breads, for every weekday - oh, and double it on weekends, thanks. Can you start tomorrow?  On the spot. Just like that.

 We were suddenly a business. These guys ordered as much each day as we could possibly bake with the primitive equipment we had. Time to expand, get legal...easier said than done with zero capital!

Next thing, Jurek was chatting on the phone to another old mate from the same region, Simon, and it turns out he's popping down to Sydney soon. Simon has a small bakery in Nimbin, and he wants to change his environment for his young family. What we're doing is of interest, it seems. And Simon had a little capital too...

He arrives, sees the operation, thinks about it for a couple of days, says in his proper English accent: 'I'll buy a decent oven, and you get a proper premises, and we'll get stuck into it.' From that point, our first 'proper' bakery was on its way. Still not legal, but 'proper.'

So already we're moving on to our third illegal bakery - a house in Coogee which had a large kitchen and back room, where we would be installing this 'enormous' new oven. It had about five times a domestic oven's capacity, a New Zealand oven designed for 'par' (partial) baking in roadside bakeries. It was relatively cheap, high capacity, and most importantly, you could wire it up to a domestic electrical circuit. It even fitted through a regular doorway - just (and lucky for us, because we didn't measure it before laying down Simon's hard earned cash)! It was well beyond anything I had ever used, as I was strictly a home baker, with no commercial bakery experience. Once we had fully figured this oven out, we were able to produce 33 little pyrex bowls of dense breads per load. This gave us massive capacity, and so the little backyard bakery grew very quickly beyond its capacity too!

Vanessa, our first daughter Bella and I lived in the front section of the long, semi detached house, while the bakery shared the kitchen with us, and also occupied the back room, where the new oven lived. Sometimes we held bakery meetings in our loungeroom - it was very much a cooperative business, with the four of us making decisions on the run, and each day running to keep up with our quite sudden notoriety. In the mornings, we would lay out the boxes for orders in the back yard for packing as the breads cooled. In the evenings I would dictate business plans to Vanessa, while hand kneading dough in big bowls, both of which (the business plans and the dough) would season overnight, ready for Jurek and Simon to form and bake in the morning, or for me to take to 'business school' the next day. Vanessa would write it all down in her clear handwriting, and provide me with these original handwritten copies for me to edit later. A model of efficiency, she was...

Each night, Vanessa and I would both sleep, except when our toddler interrupted, whereapon Vanessa was deligated to do the duties...and in the morning I would head off with deliveries at 6a.m. and go to business school afterwards. The business course I had enrolled in would, if I was successful, qualify our bakery for a small government grant to get us set up. The grant was for the equivalent of 12 month's dole (Australian for Social Security payment) , delivered fortnightly, just like the dole was. In fact, it was the dole, only you could use it legally (one legal thing at a time!) to get your new business going. The grant I was applying for through this business course, effectively, was a way of bureaucrats moving a subset of people from one statistical category to another. This, as I now understand, was a means of said government becoming re elected. 'Reduce unemployment' was a previous promise, which was about to reach it's use by date. Thus, I became 'employed'..

The cost to the taxpayer of moving me from 'unemployed' to 'self employed'? The same as it would have been had I remained unemployed. A brilliant piece of statistical engineering. And my start into the bakery business.

We were, after I completed the course in 'controversial' circumstances ( I will illume in a later article, particularly if you contact me with the headline subject 'NEIS scheme'), successful in gaining this meagre handout, and proceeded to search for a proper location for a 'legal' bakery. It was time. Legitimacy beckoned.

We found an old chemist shop in Clovelly, which had closed, but which had a residence above a large terrace style shop. We managed to get all the necessary approvals, and somehow scraped together enough cash to pay for hardware and supplies. After begging friends and family, we eventually gathered enough capital to get some shopfitting completed, and to put in an oven and a mixer. We had just opened the new 'legal' bakery at Clovelly, when we got the news. 

We had won 'best new business' through the business course that I mentioned earlier , which allowed us about 5 minutes of massive 'prime time' fame. This fame included radio, press, and TV coverage of our new business, which happened to be a bakery. The first benefactors of the government's new 'Enterprise Initiative, lifting three young people off the dole'.

I spent the first of my allocated 15 minutes of fame on Good Morning Australia, being interviewed by Kerri Anne someone or other about sourdough bread and small business schemes and how good they were...the TV lights, the environment and all that completely shook me, and I looked like a rabbit in the spotlight on screen.

Our business rapidly doubled in size, virtually overnight. The Clovelly bakery had crossed over to the 'legal' world. We were out of the lawless days and respectible at last!

So once again, my little family and I moved into the back of yet another bakery/abode. Some things are just meant to happen, and Sourdough Bread was one of them. I wonder sometimes if I hadn't done it the way I did, how it might have happened. There were so many hurdles, but I knew they would be overcome when I saw the look on people's faces when they tried this amazing substance.

It was the early eighties. 'Gourmet' food was beginning to really take hold in Australia. We had discovered we were a 'multicultural' country, with a great climate. We had discovered, or decided, that Australian farmers were amongst the best in the world.

Australians had also discovered wine, and were beginning to discover boutique beer, as opposed to the variety we had been drinking forever. We acknowledged the huge effect Mediterranean immigration has had on Australia, both culturally and with our ideas of food and family.

We always had eaten Asian, but now we idolised Indian, we identified Thai, we embraced the East, we noshed on Latin. The soulless, orphaned Aussies began to see themselves as part of a global awakening. It was big; now it's happened, of course, it ain't big anymore. But at the time, it was a world changer.

There were a lot of other sourdough bakeries starting up, which were not far behind us. I have a file an inch thick on the various press articles written about our bakery in its different incarnations over the years, and the excitement of the time is tangible. I remember meeting some of the other great bakers and foodies and always being totally struck by the obsession and passion with which these people went about doing what they did - whether it was bread, coffee or ice cream -  Either way, it was passionate amateurs, not seasoned corporates, who brought us Sourdough bread AND organic flour!

That, I guess, is an illustration of culture, as opposed to cultural policy...

And then what happened? You can follow the story right here. 

Meanwhile, a couple of decades later, I find myself teaching aspiring bakers not only what to do, but what NOT to do, inspired (or possibly irrevocably scarred) by this story. At the School of Sourdough, I provide a Sourdough 300 Series of intensive workshops to help get new and existing bakers up to speed as proper artisans. Check out this course by following the link.