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.