SourdoughBaker Cafe Begins

Posted in Bakery Stories

There is so much hard labour that goes on behind the scenes in any foodservice business, and bakeries are up there in terms of 'back breaking heavy slog'. I have begun to seriously wonder if what I am doing at the moment, creating and establishing the SourdoughBaker Cafe, fits into this category.

Yes, another cafe bakery has sprouted, after a rest of over 6 years. I blame this website for getting me inspired to run a bakery one more time. In the process of putting all these recipes and stories and techniques together, I found myself making lots of bread at home, and thoroughly enjoying the act of doing (as well as documenting) it.

I also found myself designing a 'woodfired cafe friendly oven' with Craig Miller (of I wanted to design a really good oven to sole bake on, which was woodfired, and which could also be put to use in a cafe environment.. Craig was keen to make one, after a few long chats. He's an oven fanatic. Two fanatics meeting mutual satisfaction through design - who would have thought?

Many hundreds of hours of phone conversations later, we have an oven, in the flesh, for the new millenium. It utilises technology from many milleniums past, but cleverly, we hope. Or, as I like to say, third world technology as applied to the first world.



Bertha the woodfired oven at work

This oven, called (affectionately) Bertha, has now been built as a prototype, and we use it in the SourdoughBaker Cafe every day - not only to bake bread. Bertha handles all our chef's cooking too!

Sole Baking entices the baker to bake again...

'Sole Baking', or baking directly on the floor (sole) of the oven, has become a fascination for me over many years. I spent a fair proportion of my time when travelling dropping in on bakeries which operated using this method. Some of them were woodfired, like LaTartine on the Central Coast of NSW. Others operated using thoroughly modern gas fired 'setter' ovens, like at Phillipa's Bakery in Melbourne, who had, at that time, just installed a state of the art Electrolux setter oven, which could set over 600 loaves at once.

Sole bread bakingI had attempted sole baking at the Katoomba bakery, but it soon became apparent that special equipment and new skills would be necessary. Back in those days (and prices have probably doubled since - I investigated these ovens around the year 2000), a serious 'setter' oven (or specially designed oven for 'sole' baking) cost upwards of a hundred thousand dollars. Even a baby one would cost a lowly baker between twenty and thirty thousand dollars. At that time, I was tempted, but resisted this temptation. I planned the whole bakery process, in fact, and designed floor plans around the oven.  A complete refit of the bakery would be needed, and this cost about the same amount as the oven itself. So, despite my enthusiasm for the idea, sole baking would became a pipe dream.

That was, of course, until now. As a result of playing around with my backyard barbeque, I started to figure out the principles of sole baking. The bread I was making this way was just so much better than the bread I had been baking for the 'test recipes' on this website (using bread tins or trays in a small domestic electric oven). Not to say that there was anything wrong with the recipes, it was just so much more exciting getting the massive 'kick' you get when baking on a stone floored oven, without tins or trays.

So I guess you could say I became, once more, hooked to making bread. Now I had to find an outlet for this possible new chapter of my very long term breadmaking adventure.

And then there was a location...

At about the same time, I found myself hanging around an old mate, Mark Carruthers. He had a cafe on Hunter Street, Newcastle West, called Raw Alchemy. Mark's cafe was a haven for the 'seriously counter culture' of inner city Newcastle, as well as students, local lawyers and telephone canvassers. His specialty cafe and retail operation serviced Newcastle west's vegans, vegetarians, organic shoppers and local workers alike with tofu wraps, veggie juice, espresso and all sorts of organic goodies like rice, spelt flour and chickpeas. I sat in Mark's eclectic cafe and retail many times, and chatted with him about how we would fix the world, and at the same time make his cafe a 'kick arse' little destination. While it was obvious the Raw Alchemy Cafe had a loyal following, it was also clear that Newcastle West was not a booming metropolis with thousands of eager shoppers marching by on a daily basis. It was an area of Newcastle that got patched up after the earthquake, and then forgotten, as the suburbs and their megamalls became the preferred method of consumerism. I might add that both of us were keen to build some sort of community enterprise as a way of combating what we saw as the 'relentless march of the shopping mall'. We also were without access to serious capital, which is a prerequisite for a bakery of any kind.

I had good experiences building up cooperatives and associations in various incarnations before and after being a sourdough baker. If you gathered your capital (whether human or money) directly from the community you service, you are committed to that community. This made the cooperative model very suitable for a truly sustainable business, because a business that was close to its community tends to do better than one which is remotely managed. It seemed to us a community bakery style enterprise, based on low tech, green principles, might be workable in Mark's location. So we started having meetings about forming a food producers' cooperative with some local people. Things began to move ahead slowly.

We even bought a little gas pizza oven to play with. The toy oven

Then, after one of these meetings, Mark had an accident with a glass jar, and almost lost a finger. It put him completely out of action for a few months. With his business thrown into a state of 'unknown', he asked me if I wanted to try doing some pizzas there with our new toy oven, just to test the whole concept we were working up around a bakery cafe, managed by a cooperative. I agreed, and dived in, thinking I might be able to help out.

I don't know why I did this.

And then, there was the SourdoughBaker Cafe

After a week, it became clear that half measures wouldn't work. The whole place needed to be refreshed and reorganised before anything like a bakery could be installed. Having a vision for how it needed to be done, I offered to buy the business from Mark, so that he and I could move forward without treading on each other's toes. He agreed, and pretty soon our 'cooperative' was up and running - at least in an unincorporated sort of way.

I should mention that all this was done without any capital - a business plan was half written, and there were some people who had attended the meetings for the coop who were going to help out. We renovated, painted, drew up menus and bingo! We were in business - by the skin of our teeth. But if we wanted to continue, we would need help, equipment and some capital. 

Well, the help came and mostly went, as enthusiastic amateurs discovered just how hard foodservice is. Maureen Curran, one of the coop helpfuls, hung in there the longest, with the two of us working fourteen hour days to get the thing up and running. We couldn't afford to pay staff, as we had no capital and no substantial turnover, so we just did it all ourselves. Luckily, Maureen had done a bit of foodservice herself, and so knew what it was all about. What amazing stamina she had! The first couple of months were pretty tough, and I don't know how either of us survived!

Eventually, though, help started to trickle in. Craig fronted up with a proper (but tiny) woodfired oven, which he rented to us (theoretically - I don't think we actually paid much of the rent) while we finished designing Bertha. The landlord gave us a bit of leeway with the rent, and all the suppliers did what they could.

A talented young chef, Paul West, (lately a TV star!) walked in soon after, and got involved. Pretty soon, he put in some of his savings and paid for Bertha to be fabricated. Then he headhunted his girlfriend (well, not literally), Alicia Cordia, to be our barista. And what a barista! I am continually encouraged by the calibre of people who have been involved in this project - and it just keeps getting better all the time.

To follow what happens next on this thread of the story, have a look at:

A perfect storm blows SourdoughBaker Cafe out of the water!