The story so far:
After illegal origins, the Australia's first sourdough bakery and cafe, which had found its 'native habitat' in Leura, NSW, also finds its feet. But then, just when I thought I was beginning to get the hang of it, Sydney discovered Leura.
Let's backpedal a little. I remember those early days of freedom and bakery experimentation which were happening in this little kitchen in the main street of Leura. The simple reality I had to face was, the Baker's cafe just kept growing. Not in size - it was always pocket sized - but in popularity. People thought we were the duck's guts. I was constantly amazed that we managed to get away with it day after day. And, at the same time, I was all for it.
I figured that the more sourdough bread people ate, the better it would be for bakeries. My theory was that bakeries had lost their relevance; that manufactured bread would wipe the bread business out. That making proper bread had lots of positive effects, not only the people who ate the bread, but also on the community where the bakery interected. I had seen it already with Demeter Bakery in Glebe, NSW. These guys were a little haven of unselfish goodness in the middle of what was suburban Glebe. They made great bread. They were always something ahead of their time, I thought. I translated all this to the present. My translation got very simple:
The better quality the product, the more we would sell. Besides, 'organic' bread would, eventually become a 'thing', right?
Of course, I firmly believed that this bread would also be better for people's health. Having healthy gut flora can be a blessing, and avoiding certain kinds of yeasts and replacing them with others is generally acknowledged as a good practice. People would live more healthily by eating my bread, I thought.
On a macro level, if everyone demanded organic flour, more organic farms would be established to meet that demand. You could only use organic flour to make these great breads, I reasoned, partially correctly.
Thus, we would save the world, one loaf at a time.
Great plan, but..
After experiencing my first serious learning curve when our little enterprise took off so quickly, I built capacity in the shop by installing more ovens and a bigger mixer. It seemed, though, that every time we turned around, we needed another piece of equipment. A new oven. A coffee machine. A grinder. Baking trays by the dozen. Air conditioning. On it went. All of us, my growing family (who were already stakeholders in the enterprise) could see its popularity, so we (almost) willingly poured more and more time and money into it. Me, especially.
I had no idea how much capital was needed to get a bakery up and running properly. I didn't know the bakery industry at all, so I didn't know the common processes, or the types of equipment available. Having said that, in Australia there was not a great deal to choose from, as there was, effectively, only one or two major manufacturer/suppliers, who controlled demand by controlling supply. The 'trade based' education system dictated the common bakery processes, specifically the 'rapid dough' method, and I came from outside this method.
My lack of bakery experience was a double edged sword - while I came up with innovative ways to do things (because no one had told me I couldn't do it this way) I also reinvented the wheel many, many times.
Back then I was obsessed by making bread, and the alchemistry of it all. To actually educate myself more thoroughly in the business and the industry itself, I checked out other bakeries wherever I was. It was more of a critical appraisal of these other bakeries than an actual research process, though. I would assess them according to ethical criteria, whether they used organic flour or not. Whether they did sourdough, and if they did it as well as we did, and so on. 'The invincibility of youth' was never a more aptly applied phrase, than in my case. I still thought I knew something that everyone else didn't.
Now, with the benefit of a couple of decades worth of hindsight, I suspect it might have been the other way around.
I was on the 'business capital' merry go round - more equipment was needed to meet the demand, and more sales were then needed to pay for the equipment. More sales in turn generated a need for more equipment, which required fresh capital. It took me about ten years to wake up to the fact that I had built a very topsy turvy business.
When I finally realised I was on an endless treadmill, I just wanted to get off, but it was too late! There were school fees to pay, mortgages to service, lives to live. And bakeries to feed.
In the end, our tiny bakery and cafe in Leura was destined to outgrow itself. There needed to be a new business plan, but I kept working with the old one.
Conditions were about to change, and I didn't see it.
THE BLUE MOUNTAINS - SYDNEY'S PLAYGROUND.
After a few years trading in Leura, the noses of the nascent Sydney food scene were scouring 'the regions' for new thrills. And thrills they found, in our sourdough bakery. It had the location, it had the romance. It had Vanessa's exquisite merchandising skill. It had the product. And it had me, a media tart from way back.
Needless to say, a few Herald articles and the odd magazine piece later, we were established foodie royalty. Like the rock industry before it, I was watching the food biz unfold, and later unravel, on hype. But right now, I was happy to get the attention.
I was approached by the who's who at that time of the Sydney Food Mafia to supply them with product - everything from five star restaurants, to providores, to retailers - and they all seemed to appear at the same time, from nowhere, or so it seemed...
EXPORTING BREAD TO SYDNEY
We did a business junket to Sydney - a local distributor and I - and landed, in one day, about 30 prime customers. We had the who's who of Sydney's high end food business all keen to make our acquaintance asap. Quite an ego boost, and a vote of confidence for my product. I dived in, of course.
Pretty soon, every day, the tiny bakery in Leura's main street was pumping out a van load of bread bound for Sydney, and another load the same size for the locals.
There were mornings when Robert, our intrepid distributor, could not open the door to the tiny shop at 4.30 am. There was too much bread, stacked everywhere, to be able to push the inward opening front door open!
After a lot of shuffling, he would get his little Hi Ace Van loaded with sourdough bread, and on the road for Sydney. My bakers and I would tidy up, and finally go home to sleep the sleep of the dead.
We had a small team of bakers working around the clock - the afternoon shift would come in at 4 pm, and would work through the night until the orders were filled.
Meanwhile, the morning Cafe crew would arrive and curse the mess we bakers had left behind...
And so it went, for a couple of years. The bottomless well of Sydney's demand for great sourdough bread kept enlarging, and we kept attempting to fulfil it. But inevitably, the wheels slowly began to fall off the cart, due to the simple fact that we did not have the premises to maintain this amount of production. Something bigger had to be found, and fairly quickly, because this business seemed to show no signs of slowing down any time soon...
TIME TO MAKE A BREAD FACTORY...
Easier said than done in the Blue Mountains at that time. Stay tuned for the story of the North Katoomba adventure, and how being a big shot baker isn't good for one's soul..
Want to learn how to make sourdough bread in a practical, hands on workshop? We hold them at our School of Sourdough every month. Follow the link to find out more!