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.

 

No Artisans to be found

Back in 1994, though, Sydney was still relishing the delights of an escape to the mountains for cold clean air and warm log fires. Sydney has always had a taste for all things 'gourmet'. and sourdough was, back then, a 'must have' item. When I say 'must have', I need to put it in context. Sydney is a pretty big town, and at that stage sourdough bread was a novelty you had to travel for. There were no 'Artisan' bakeries, with the exception of some tried and true patisseries scattered around the east and northern suburbs. But in those days, it wasn't too hard to jump in your car and explore new food territories. These days, of course, it's much more of a mission - but that's another story.

Quinton's Artisan Bakery bread

My bread had found its way into the very finest of shops and restaurants in the inner city Sydney region. There wasn't another bakery providing anything like it. There was no Brasserie (except in Potts Point, and it was a restaurant, not a bakery), no Sonoma, no Bourke Street Bakery, no Infinity Bakery - though Brent Hershee was baking some delicious true sourdough bread up the road from me at Blackheath Bakery, which was indeed part of the mountains food trek back in the day.

The scent of growth

I decided, after many approaches by Sydney food operators, to supply more of Sydney, as well as Leura. I was just following the scent of growth, which kept wafting my way. In my eternal optimism, I didn't think I would ever look back, or that this seemingly endless demand would ever, uhh, turn sour.

Leura bakery

The little shop in Leura - and I do mean little - pretty quickly got filled up with all the bread being baked from two tiny ovens every day. My distributor would have to remove crates of bread before he could get in the door in the cold Blue Mountains mornings. Pretty soon I started looking for a site to put a big supply style bakery in. A factory, I guess - though I would never have called it such a crass thing back in those days. To me, it was always a bakery - just a bigger one.

The wilderness of North Katoomba

It turned out that there weren't too many sites suitable for the purpose in the upper Blue Mountains in 1994. I ended up settling on an empty shopping centre site in North Katoomba. The new owner of the site seemed very amenable to any configuration or alternate use in the village style bank of five shops. He needed a tenant. He was making positive noises in my direction, with promises of all the things he would do to the site to make it just right for me.

The previous owner of the building had gone belly up, spending too much money getting the site built, which in turn forced him to squeeze the fledeling tenants in this brand new shopping centre too hard, charging more in rent than they could sustain, inevitably causing them all to fall over, one by one. What was left, after all the tenants closed their shops, was a vacant building in the middle of a small suburban backwater, which was progressively being destroyed by local kids who had found a way in, knocking holes in the internal walls, and practicing their graffiti skills where no one but their friends could see. The building was deteriorating rapidly in its empty condition. The new owner was motivated to get me in there asap.

North Katoomba bakery

I chose a big, five sided combination of two shops. I went through the necessary steps with the local council to get the planned bakery approved for food production, and was promised large amounts of support from the seemingly amenable landlord. I proceeded to jump through all the hoops the council had provided for me to jump through, which proved to be very expensive. Many of them really were things the owner should have provided, like a proper ceiling - but my poor negotiating skill compared to that of a seasoned businessman which the owner turned out to be, meant that I wore the bulk of the cost of refurbishment of part of his shopping centre myself.

Filling the void

Then I had to get the new bakery set up and equipped. When I moved my baking equipment from the tiny shop in Leura to this huge new space, it looked like a wart on an elephant's back. Gradually, I found the right scale of equipment, and after a year or so we were set up relatively well, and were beginning to fill the capacity that the new bakery provided. 

I had leased a beautiful Italian rack oven, which was recommended to me by my equipment supplier. I also had my old oven from Clovelly, a Spanish deck oven, as well as the convection ovens from Leura. Mixing equipment was leased, as well as pastry sheeting gear. We built a big coolroom, and after many rearrangements in the odd shaped bakery space, we finally had something resembling a production scale bakery.

Quinton's North Katoomba

At this point, I saw all this expansion as part of my business plan, the one I wrote five or six years earlier when we were still baking from the back of a house in Coogee. Most of the current financing had come from the bustling Leura business, which at that stage was very profitable. I had various members of my family working with me to build the business, and some of those family members offered to invest in this growing business, which I gratefully accepted - I could see no downside at all to all this spending, with the constant growth we were experiencing being the justification.

Risk? What's that?

If anyone had told me there was a risk to all this growth, or that perhaps I had gone in a bit too hard and a bit too fast, I would (and probably did) pummel them with my version of events. To me, it had been such a long and slow journey, invested with truth and light and the Australian way, and therefore there could be no end to my ever expanding universe. I had lived it and breathed it every step of the way, and I knew it would continue until the world changed to accommodate my version of things. 

Display for the cameras

The bakery in North Katoomba got finished, in a way, over the next five years. It cost a lot more than I thought to complete - and every time we grew, there was more to pay. Nonetheless, we  built the business from processing about half a tonne of flour a week up to about a tonne a day, when it was running at its peak. It was well over its capacity most of the time - much great bread and pastries were baked there.

Growth, growth and more growth

Quinton's Pastries

I mentioned pastries - during this time, the business changed its name from 'The Baker's Cafe' to 'Quinton's Sourdough and Danish'. The shop in Leura had developed a pastry habit to go with the coffee, so a pastry section in the new bakery evolved to satisy it. Along the way, we got pretty good at making Danish pastries - hence the first name change. The fact that I wasn't a trained pastrycook didn't daunt me - I wasn't a trained baker either. This hadn't held me back in the past.  

I can now liken my mindset to that of Western capitalism in general - growth being the currency from which all things are measured.  In addition, I was pig headed, and on a quest to save the world from crap bread, and now crap pastries, one loaf, or croissant, at a time.

Lots of dough being made

But it was bigger than that - I wanted to save the environment from a chemical driven monoculture, I wanted to create a collaborative anarchy where everyone would work towards a common, if individually nuanced goal; I wanted lots of things to change, and fast. 

I still do, of course - I remain on a quest to save the world from crap bread, among other things - some of these things being contained in the previous paragraph. But I think of myself these days as less pig headed - more of a mule for change.

As I went along on my grand adventure, my mission mutated. I allowed many compromises to creep in. Up to this point, everything I used was organic. Now, I needed things like butter and chocolate in big volumes. I simply couldn't consistently source organic pastry ingredients, so conventional was used. My focus had shifted from everything bread to everything food. I hadn't thought that I was moving in a different direction, but I was.

At the same time, I began to continually multitask. I had one eye on the product, another on the overdraft, and another one on the staff, who I hadn't noticed were all running their own grand adventures. Keeping an eye on the receivables required still another eye. If you are keeping count, that made four, and in my invincibility, I thought that having at least four eyes would be fine. And many more eyes were needed still - production management, wholesale customer liaison, keeping in touch with the locals, waste management, OH and S, insurances, capital financing, media, administration, payroll, compliances, marketing...

Quinton's, North Katoomba

The original human design, it turned out, only came with two eyes. I tried to gather more eyes inside different bodies, but eventually arrived at the quite disturbing realisation that in the end I was responsible for everything. No matter how many bodies there were handling different aspects of the business for me, I alone was accountable.

In response to this realisation, I attempted numerous different ways of becoming a control freak, so that all these other bodies I had gathered would provide some actual assistance in helping me with my limitless responsibilities - but these other bodies also had legs, and they knew how to use them better than their eyes. Control freaks eventually drive all the good people away. 

I wasn't a pastrycook. I wasn't a baker. And it turns out I wasn't much of a business manager either. 

Still, the business grew and grew. I spent long hours on the road, selling my artisan vision to cafes, restaurants and retailers. I would return to the Blue Mountains after each trip with many new customers, which was very exciting. The thrill of it kept everybody in the bakery motivated. The cafe staff in Leura were not quite as enthusiastic - each new customer meant less consistency for them, as we attempted to accomodate every new customer's whim by giving them the best of the crop each day. 

The quest for control

I began to learn that it wasn't possible to commodify artisan production, but in fact that's what everyone wanted - a commodity that would remain identical day after day. 

I developed an obsession with equipment, in the hope that machines would provide me with the consistency, and the volume, everybody required. I investigated rollers, sheeters, dividers, intermediate proofers, moulders and much more. Some of these machines found their way into the bakery, and by process of trial and error, we learned to use them, or not.

Luckily, I had stumbled across a couple of fellows who just happened to have an enourmous woolshed full of used bakery machines, who were quite happy to let me play with them, as long as I paid the freight and sent them back when I had finished. Their input into my thinking at this time was significant - and possibly worthy of another story, another time. Certainly, for my limited bakery experience at that time, their depth of bakery background provided me with a great deal of on the job education.

In the end, I would conclude that machines don't give you consistency. They can, if chosen wisely, provide greater efficiency - but if you actually have to pay for them, the price of these efficiency gains can be pretty high.

Control by spreadsheet

In my quest for consistency and control, I also became proficient at spreadsheets, which were used to communicate the differing daily needs of various levels of the production process - with one series of inputs generating all manner of things - doughmaking schedules, pastry numbers, shop and wholesale order sheets, as well as packing and delivery sheets for the drivers who delivered everything we made.

Of course, bakers hate spreadsheets and never actually read them. They just make what they made last Thursday or Friday or whatever day it was, and leave the mess of who gets what for the packers to sort out. I had no knowledge of this for many years, however. I just credited each customer when we messed up. The bakers always did everything they were asked to do, exactly as the spreadsheet said. That's what they told me, and I somehow believed them. To me, it was as if there were gremlins hiding in the machine, and I just had to figure out where they were. So I would refine my spreadsheet, endlessly. Occasionally, a gremlin would pop out - but mysteries remained the order of the day - no pun intended.

Taking stock of things

At this point, I had something like 54 people working for me. There were about 8 bakers, a bakery manager, a few pastrychefs, a couple of apprentices, some packers, a couple of drivers, a dozen or more people working in the cafe, a person handling the orders, a bookkeeper; I had some staff who worked on market stalls, a nanny, a couple of cleaners and others I can't even remember.

We had about a hundred wholesale customers, about fourteen market stalls, a shop and cafe in Leura, the factory in North Katoomba, three delivery vehicles - not to mention all the stuff that goes into making any of these individual production units viable. 

I was, by this time, reduced to the little boy who spent most of his time with his finger in the dyke. As soon as I patched up one hole, another opened up, so I'd be there stuffing things into it so all the water wouldn't run out. I had a business machine that ran 24/7, and I was on call for everything. The phone call when the packer didn't turn up for work at 3am. The other phone call when the big oven shorted out and consequently knocked out all the power in North Katoomba at 10pm. Still another call at midnight from the local police informing me that someone had smashed the plate glass window of the shop in the middle of the bitterly cold Blue Mountains winter, and could I go down and guard my shop from looters while I arrange for the window to be boarded up. I spent that particular night on the street in my dressing gown and slippers observing pneumonia as it crept upon me slowly in the dark. These were not isolated experiences either. They had variants, and were in some cases recurring. I've written about others of a similarly intense nature here, so I won't repeat myself.

Sometimes these types of things happened one after the other in a short space of time, while other times I would get a good run and not have anything happen for a few months. Then, just when I was beginning to get comfortable with things, another new an unexpected emergency would wake me from my domestic bliss.

Too much dough, not enough bread 

Dough

After six years, the factory in North Katoomba wore me out - emotionally, physically and spiritually. It wore everybody out financially too - members of my family, some of my staff, and me as well. I had poured everything I had into it for a very, very long time. I had seen so many people come and go throughout that time, and had spent so much money trying to make it work - yet I had nothing to show for it except a huge amount of worn out equipment and a massive overdraft, which I had to spend most of my time managing so that the next bill could be paid. 

I looked at what I had created, and faced a new abyss. To my tired eyes, I had created nothing more than a bunch of rusty metal. My body and brain were frazzled, I was self medicating most of the time, and there were any number of distractions which I would require to keep me from topping myself at any given moment.

The risks, which I had shunned earlier in my invincibility phase, had come home to roost. I lost the will to continue. It took quite a while, in fact over three years, to pull the whole business apart, and one or two false starts to put it back together again later in a different fashion. I ended up walking away with nothing - not even my health. My attempts to redeem something from it kept my small family's heads above water for a time, but in the end I had to accept defeat, whether I wanted to or not. 

The gambler

I once had a mexican baker, Jackie, who had been a gambler in a past life. He was a lovely guy, who was always a pleasure to spend time with. Once, he said to me in his Mexican accent: " Warwick, when you are a drinker, you lose your health, but not always their friends. A drug addict will lose their money, and sometimes their family too. But a gambler - when you are a gambler, you lose everything." I never saw myself as a gambler. But now, with the benefit of many years hindsight, I know that I was indeed a gambler.

I have only myself to blame for my failures, and everyone else to thank for my successes. I still lead with my chin, most of the time, but I'm also more handy with my left hook. Despite my placid nature, there are times when a left hook is a necessary weapon. So although I've copped a few blows between then and now, I've been able to fend off the killer ones. And here I still am.

I've learned a little in battle, and a little more in love. I've been working on this story for a long time, and have arrived at a point where I can tell you at least part of it. I've learned that growth is just growth. It happens when you feed life. So does decay. It happens at the beginning of death, and all through life as well - but it happens quietly, sometimes masked by the bloom.

That's the sourdough process too. It incorporates, and indeed transforms decay into a beautiful thing, something that nourishes the human soul more deeply than artifice. 

 

 

 

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