A bakery on the rise?

Written by Warwick Quinton. Posted in Bakery Stories

Leura, 1995

So, Sydney discovered Leura, and Leura also discovered Sydney. The relationship has continued to flourish, a dozen or more years later. Last time I visited Leura, during a week day, the place was wall to wall BMW and shiny Range Rover, with child seats in the back. My old cafe had become 'The Man Cave', and had gobbled up the newsagent next door. There were a couple of bakeries and many more cafes. 

My guess is the locals stay away from Leura in droves these days.

The Gypsy bakery - 15,000 loaves later

Written by Warwick Quinton. Posted in Bakery Stories

It's been almost a year and a half since Craig Miller towed the Gypsy Woodfired Bakery Experience, our 'mobile bakery', to Tipperary Farm, and I fired up Luna for her first serious bake. Since then, I have baked something like 15,000 loaves of bread in Luna the woodfired oven, and spent well over 600 hours in the Gypsy bakery, making sourdough bread and teaching people how to make sourdough bread. 

The Gypsy woodfired bakery

In that time, I've continued to learn on the job, and Craig and I have continued to tweak this 'relocatable bakery'. I hesitate to call it a 'mobile bakery', as was the design brief. It's not really mobile. Once again, weight has been the enemy, despite all the best laid plans.


The Baker is a Gypsy

Written by Warwick Quinton. Posted in Bakery Stories

I guess it dawned on me a few years ago - owning a bakery is one thing, but owning the premises is another. Apart from the sheer cost of setting up a commercial bakery, once you've paid for this, ultimately the landlord ends up with the fixtures and fittings when you have gone. Things like sinks, grease traps, ventilation systems, benching, wiring, plumbing and so on. Anything that's attached or built in the end becomes part of the building. And when all the equipment is installed, it isn't all that easy to pull it out again either. So the idea is, I suppose, that you invest in creating your bakery kitchen, use it for a while, theoretically reap the rewards over the first few years, and hope that the rent stays the same for a while longer than that.

Quinton's Artisan Bakery

Which, if you have been successful in attracting customers, it probably won't - because the landlord usually sees their property as more valuable when there is customer flow, so as soon as they can, they will increase the rent. After all, the premises is now obviously commercially viable, justifying their capital outlay and making them into a 'canny investor'. Of course, if you, the tenant and entrepreneur, are clever, you may later sell the business you have created for a handsome price - but this is rare, and comes with its own set of risks, which don't end when the cheque is in your bank account. Besides which, many leases require the landlord to approve any sale before it can happen anyway.

Does the baker make any dough? 

Some bakers I know bought their premises early on, and their bakeries have become sustainable as a result - provided they had a bit of luck with location. The retail world is a fickle one. I have also seen successful bakeries buy their buildings, only to see the retail strip they are in become a ghost town due to the shopping mall opening up around the corner a few years later, or the road outside becoming a highway, or major thoroughfare, with no parking outside the bakery any more...the customer flow just dries up, slowly but surely.

I'm not a businessman - perhaps, though, I have an entrepreneurial spirit. I've decided that being in business is necessary to make things happen, though I don't identify as a person who loves 'business'. For a while, I played the game and thought that I was - but my motives were never primarily focussed on profit. I have always just wanted to make great bread and play my part in the community that grows around things like bakeries and cafes and places where people congregate. I don't really care much about money - as long as I have enough to pay my bills and feed my family, I'm happy.

This theory is easy enough to believe in - but the detail of the term 'enough money' has eluded me time and time again. Preparing for what I'm going to call 'left field issues' was never on my radar strongly enough.  Things seem to conspire to keep small businesses small, particularly ones with very little capital and big dreams. Things which should be considered, but which I didn't.

 The oven is not supposed to breakWhat could possibly go wrong? I mean, you own the business - doesn't that mean you must be rich? From the outside, it certainly looks that way. Look at that equipment, all those people running around. Those customers are handing over wads of cash all day long. You must be rich! Well, there are some unforeseen circumstances which are capable of putting a dent in one's own self belief, particularly when a number of them happen within a short space of time.

For example - and I'm just going to grab a few off the top of my head for you here -  what happens when one very expensive and hard working oven suddenly breaks and you need to fix it - and to keep things going you must quickly find a few thousand dollars.  Or what about when the power bill doubles for no apparent reason - and you discover you need a new electrician, because the old one made a few major mistakes and doesn't know how to fix them? Or what happens when your head baker leaves and starts their own outfit with your old staff and your training, and sets about gathering your customers as well? What happens when you have a change of government, then the GST comes in, and in order to get on top of it, you have to spend six months reorganising your administration to collect taxes (which the government you didn't vote for want you collect for them), for free?

Or there's a phone call at two a.m, and the bread distributor wants someone to pack his order because the packer didn't turn up. So off you go to do it, because at two a.m, who is going to answer the phone? Or another phone call at three a.m on another day in (let's say) the same week - it's the local police. How do you then deal with opening the shop as usual at seven a.m when they are explaining to your sleep deprived self that the front window of your shop has been smashed during the night by a drunken kid. Pretty soon it becomes clear that you will have to get out of bed (again) and go down there in the freezing blue mountains winter cold and stand guard while waiting for the glazier who will eventually come to board it up. In the process, you become aware that you cannot do the local bread deliveries because you won't be able raise anyone to do them for you at four in the morning. So far, the evening has cost you about a weeks' takings, and you haven't even started the day yet. In the end, of course, it becomes just another day at the office - one which began in September and finished in July.

 Mentally, these little things become a war of attrition on the health and wellbeing of an otherwise creative soul. Over the years, everything I mentioned here  happened to me, as did a raft of even more unplanned, 'left field' events. Yes, they are my story - but they have also happened to others like me. In the end, we bakery owners all become grumpy and haggard old buggers, servants to everyone, especially the bank manager. And captives to our employees, our customers, the neighbours, and even the government of the day. We become lousy fathers and husbands too - we are too stressed and preoccupied to be patient, caring and kind. Makes you wonder why anyone would do it at all.

I often have. I finally concluded that the inevitable transition from following a soul urge of being a baker and working with my hands, to becoming a bean counter and working with my nerves just wasn't for me. It took me quite a few years to fall apart, but fall apart I did, thoroughly and comprehensively. And it took me more years still to put myself back together again. 

And this is why I have become a gypsy baker.

The Gypsy Bakery - a brilliant idea?

The idea of a woodfired mobile bakery, capable of turning up at a grower's market or event, and turning out a few hundred loaves, which are then sold on the spot is, of course, truly of its time, for many reasons. I'll venture to say it's actually brilliant - but that's only because it's my idea.

It's brilliant because it gets back to the idea of the village baker - wherever that village may be. It's brilliant because it runs with a woodfired oven, and ultimately runs off the grid - thereby removing the power company from the list of predators. Goodbye scary energy bills.

It's brilliant because it's a one or two person show - no more kowtowing to employees.

It's brilliant because it dispenses with the landlord having all the power - if you don't like the landlord, go to another site!

It's brilliant because there isn't anything on it that can't be fixed with a spanner, a screwdriver, a power drill and/or a crowbar. No more expensive surprises when the oven breaks. 

But mostly, it's brilliant because the woodfired bread is made on the spot where it will be sold, hot and fresh and delicious.

And then there was the detail... 

How do you build an 'off the grid' bakery which can bake a few hundred loaves in few hours, which can also be moved around easily? It's one thing to do the former - bake lots of bread in a short time - but the latter means making the whole thing very light as well. This is kinda difficult when your bread is dependent on thermal mass to get it's wonderful crust. Thermal mass is, by nature, heavy.

The engineering involved has taken my feeble brain many years to think through. Luckily, I enlisted the help of my erstwhile design genius and dear friend Craig Miller.

Bertha 2

For two years Craig paid my Gypsy bakery concept lip service. We played around with ideas, and Craig ended up building Bertha 2 - as the two seemingly incompatible needs of thermal mass and portability just didn't go together on paper. Bertha 2 weighed a few tonnes, in the end.  

For another year, he poo pooed the whole concept of the Gypsy bakery as being unworkable. Maybe he was right. Eventually, though, he and I have ended up building it.

I might add that we had to move Bertha 2 soon after we installed her - she was just too 'dangerous' for the landlord to have on their site. This was not in the plan. And it definitely wasn't something you would want to do again. Almost like the universe was telling us to build the Gypsy Bakery.

Then, after countless paper bag drawings, I managed to get Craig's ernest attention (at the time he was preoccupied with Bertha 2 - as was I), and he quickly started throwing stuff, in the form of ideas, in my direction, which I then gleefully rejected. As one does. 

At this point I should mention that our design partnership is one born out of countless hours spent on the phone taking the piss out of each other, as well as everything else. Craig and I have two basic sayings. 1: How hard could it be? and, 2: Of course it's brilliant. It's my idea. 

Luna the woodfired oven

In a previous article I mentioned the design brief for Luna, the woodfired oven. Luna was always thought of as a mobile oven. The Gypsy Bakery itself also has to conform to this brief - especially the part about being able to bake a few hundred loaves in a five or six hour session. Baking includes, in this instance, all the other bits as well - retarding and storing unbaked dough being the most important. And the Gypsy Bakery has to be towable without a truck, and be capable of producing really amazing bread just about anywhere. And it has to be largely self contained - not just an oven on a trailer. It has to be the whole shebang.

So far, we're pretty close to achieving all these things - though at this stage you still need to plug it in for lights and refrigeration. We have our own hot and cold running water (powered by the oven), and you can quite easily produce large numbers of loaves on board very efficiently. At this stage, dough mixing is still done elsewhere, but once the dough is made, the Gypsy Bakery can turn it into bread very, very well indeed.

 In a future article, I'll be going into the design issues in more detail - but for now, the Gypsy Bakery is well and truly on its way. It's baking bread every week from home, and comes out once a month to infrastruct our popular Sourdough 101 Workshops.

How hard could it be? And yes, it is brilliant. I thought of it.  


Denison Street a year on

Written by Warwick Quinton. Posted in Bakery Stories

(this article comes from my blog post of October 2012)

I thought it was high time I reported on how our little venture was traveling along in the wilds of Newcastle West - it's been about a year since I was smuggled in the back door and allowed a bit of kitchen space at Wesley Mission's then unused facility.

 Time flies. It's good to have a look at where we were and where we are now.- when you are in the midst of it, things seem to stay fairly still, but when you step back a bit you can see where things have moved and where they haven't.

Back in November 2011 I was given access to a kitchen which at that time had no retail facility. You may remember that through this blog and attached social media I put out the idea of a bakery which was run on a subscription basis - in other words, a bakery better connected to its customers.

By effectively pre paying for bread, our customers became stakeholders in the new enterprise. At the time, I had chosen to close our Hunter Street premises due to a perfect storm of unfavourable events. Greg Colby, who was the GM here at Wesley Mission, saw that our community based enterprise was the perfect fit for the abovementioned vacant Wesley Mission space. He held out a lifeline for us, and gave me the kitchen to re establish while the rest of the Wesley site was being renovated to incorporate the entire Newcastle Wesley Mission and it's multifarious operations. I moved in, did a few modifications to Wal, their oven, and set to work on the kitchen space to make it suitable for baking.

The Virtual Village Bakery idea was quickly established, and before I knew it I had 20 or so pre paid sourdough lovers whom I could bake fresh bread for each week. Through their support, I could keep myself afloat while I got the new premises running.

A year later, the number of subscribersto ourVirtual Village Bakery has doubled, and continues its steady growth. We also have one commercial subscriber who receives deliveries of huge 2kg loaves of sourdough bread each day for their bustling city cafe.

Our subscribers get their fresh bread every Saturday morning delivered to their door, and receive a regular bakery newsletter telling them of goings on around the cafe, and also the inside word on what is being baked for Saturday morning as well. Once people get their bread this way, they tend to continue, so we have not lost too many over the year. And our bakery manages to get a better idea of  how much bread to bake on the busiest day of the week. Our wastage level is definitely lower than normal retail bakeries as a result.

During this first year, we have managed to get lots of other things off the ground too. As mentioned in previous posts, we've renovated and re opened the cafe. Sourdough Cafe, as it has become known, has become a part of the Newcastle cafe landscape - and while it appears possibly a bit too left of center for some tastes, for many others it is a comfortable and welcoming place, a second lounge room, meeting venue or even office space, which the community in general have embraced. It definitely feels good to be here, and to be part of our vibrant and fascinating cultural mix in this post industrial city of Newcastle.

The lane from the street has been a work in progress too - Pete, our Urban Farmer, has lovingly transformed it into a kind of community garden, which provides us with salad greens and native berries, among other things. It is also a very comfy space to hang out and munch on lunch - there is sunshine and shade in equal measure.

We've called our lane Baker's Lane. For obvious reasons - and others which may become obvious as this blog continues...

Meanwhile, Joe, our erstwhile barista cum event coordinator, has started the Baker's Lane Market, which has begun to raise funds for Wesley Mission through regular Saturday morning market stalls. Our stallholders are selling homegrown food, hand made art, vintage wares and performance art (otherwise known as buskers). The stalls are free, and are attracting people to Newcastle West each week in growing numbers. We are really interested in re energising the precinct, as Denison Street is really a beautiful part of the urban landscape which up until now has been neglected and overlooked by a city as it abandons its industrial heritage for the suburban dream.

We have set up our second hand bookstore, which has actually become more of a library these days. Despite the fact that we sell books cheaply to raise money for Wesley Mission, we seem to be getting more books than we can sell from people who donate them to us.

The Cafe is also regularly used as a live alcohol free venue in the evenings, as well as for numerous community groups, including church and bible groups, meditation gatherings, storytelling evenings and even weddings! We have catered for lots of seminars and workshop events, and hold breadmaking workshops once a month.

In future posts, I'll be talking about some of the other things going on around the SourdoughBaker community enterprise, so subscribe to this very occasional blog to stay in the loop.

In the meantime, make sure you drop in to the cafe and make yourself known! We are a pretty happy mob here and are always interested to know what people are doing, so don't be shy! 

To follow the next story in this thread, have a look at:

SourdoughBaker goes bush!

SourdoughBaker Cafe heads further West

Written by Warwick Quinton. Posted in Bakery Stories

(this article comes from my blog post of April, 2012)

It's been five months since we've set up our bakery in the kitchen of Wesley Mission here in Newcastle West, and about six weeks since we opened our cafe doors once again.

It's Easter Monday today. It's been a crazy few weeks. I'm resting while the crew are keeping the easter punters fed and caffeined. It will be a busy day, with all our regulars finally having found us again after a few months in the wilderness without their favourite bakery.

The cafe is pretty much set up now, after spending the past five months slowly renovating, fitting out and decorating the space. Everybody seems pretty happy with the outcome - it's quite a bit bigger than our old digs on Hunter street, and we've had the luxury of space for the first time in years. We've created a lounge area and a front cafe kitchen, with large tables and lots of books on the walls - a biproduct of our fledgeling relationship as a social enterprise with Wesley Mission, our landlord and enterprise partner here in the wilds of the West End.

There has been a steady stream of great press about us since we've opened, with numerous blog posts, online magazine articles, and lately a couple of feature articles in the Newcastle Herald. The bread has been coming out very fine indeed, with Wal the oven almost achieving match fitness at last, after lots and lots of tweaking. Craig Miller, our erstwhile woodfired oven genius, has been sending me detailed designs of Bertha 2, and I'm currently raising some capital to have her built. She will fit nicely out the back under the awning, and will triple our baking capacity instantly. She should also give the bread a thinner, more colourful crust, due to her massive 'turbocharged' firebox (something Craig and I have been working on for over a year now). 
My offsider and baking buddy Ridley are counting the weeks till she appears with excitement, though it seems that she is taking longer to materialise than we would have thought. A bit frustrating, but these things always take longer than we wish, in my experience. Nonetheless, Bertha 2 will be more than a prototype, as her predecessor Bertha 1 was. And Wal, bless his old heart, will get to return to light duties once again.

Meanwhile, there is lots to do here in building and energising our community cafe. The blessing of working with Wesley Mission is that we have less pressure as a commercial imperative now - our brief is to set this enterprise up along the lines of a sustainable community and social enterprise - so while 'bums on seats' is the first priority, our big picture priorities can actually be allowed to progress at the same time. 
We have an awesome laneway here, which was once a parking lot for staff cars. We are working with a number of community groups to energise the space, so there will be outdoor seating, surrounded with edible gardens for the cafe, street art on the walls, and energy efficiency design additions, making shade and better use of available light. The great thing is there are people who have a passion already working on the project, and they will hopefully make a valuable addition to the whole through their efforts.

That's the nature of what we are trying to do here - and while we began it in Hunter street, it couldn't be achieved without a supportive partner with strong ties with the community to help it along. Wesley Mission has these ties, and they are very keen to see this project become a feature of the Newcastle landscape.

Every day is filled with possibility for everyone associated with SourdoughBaker Cafe, and that's exactly the way it should be.

For the next part of this story thread, have a look at:

Denison Street a year on