Food News

These restaurants are turning into temporary bakeries in order to survive

Bread, that historical staple food of so many societies, has become a means of sustenance for these businesses.

Chef-owner Julian Hills prepares loaves of sourdough in the kitchen of his Melbourne restaurant, Navi.

Ed Sloane

Chef Pasi Petänen has long fantasised about opening his own bakery, perhaps some 20 years from now, after winding down his restaurant career. “It was my retirement plan just to sell bread and have long naps in the afternoon,” he says.

But the COVID-19 crisis has forced Petänen to fast-track his bakery dreams. They say necessity is the mother of invention; but now, sourdough mother is the spark for many restaurant owners who are transforming their businesses into pop-up bakeries to stay afloat and keep staff employed.

Petänen’s Café Paci in Sydney had been open for just five months when the Federal Government directive forced the closure of restaurants nationwide. The logistics of running a takeaway service was too difficult – just how is one to adapt that delicate Paris-Brest filled with chicken liver parfait for takeaway? – and after a few weeks’ pause, Petänen rolled up his sleeves, and rolled out the dough. Cinnamon doughnuts and cardamom buns sell like hot cakes at Café Paci’s temporary bakery; that signature carrot-sorbet-liquorice dessert has turned into a carrot and liquorice cake with yoghurt icing. Loaves of his celebrated potato and molasses sourdough bread has sold out every day since the bakery opened.

Here’s the thing: Café Paci was, once upon a time, a restaurant for dine-in customers. The sourdough is immensely popular, yes, but Petänen only has capacity to make 36 loaves a day. “The kitchen is a restaurant kitchen, not a bakery. It’s a lot of work to produce what we can because we only have one bloody oven,” says Petänen. He and another chef start baking at 2am to have the goods ready at 9am. “It’s fun. It’s nice to do. But it’s hard.”

Julian Hills, too, had harboured ambitions of opening a bakery across the road from his Melbourne restaurant Navi. News dropped about the closure of restaurants on Sunday 22 March, his birthday. By Thursday, the chef-owner announced Navi’s take-home meal service. By Saturday, it was also operating as a weekend bakery.

Needless to say, space is a commodity in the kitchen. “We’ll be drying ducks for our take-home dinners while also having croissants proving in the fridge,” says Hills. He’s gratefully borrowed baking equipment from Guy Stanaway at Mornington Peninsula’s Jackalope Hotels: bannetons for producing loaves of sourdough en masse; a pastry laminator for the desert-lime cruffins; and a large mixer for the black-garlic scrolls and sweetcorn crumpets.

Pastries in the making at Navi.

(Photo: Ed Sloane)

Over at Brisbane’s Agnes, their kouign-amanns are being rolled out by hand. “We have one person rolling out pastry for eight hours a day,” says co-owner Tyron Simon. The wood-fired restaurant had been beset by a series of delays, but a grand opening had been planned for March. After the Federal Government’s fateful announcement, head chef Ben Williamson worked 20-hour days to convert the restaurant operations into a wood-fired bakery. “We’re a bakery out of necessity, but we’re mindful there are lots of great bakeries in Brisbane and we don’t want to compete with them,” says Tyson. He says Agnes’ niche is its wood-fired oven in which sourdough loaves are baked, and where cream is smoked to make house-churned smoked butter.

These restaurants’ bakery goods sell out every day, but don’t be fooled – they’re not getting rich. Bread, that historical staple food of so many societies, has become a means of sustenance for these one-time restaurants. Navi’s rapid transformation from top-end restaurant to bakery was for the sake of its staff. “There’s only five of us here. You don’t want to have to say to anyone: you’re not employed anymore,” says Hills. “That’s why we turned it around so quickly. Anything to make money to pay wages.”

In Agnes’ case, it’s one of few venues to actually increase its staff in recent weeks, growing from its core restaurant team of seven to a bakery that employs 14 people. They’ve recently welcomed Kirsty Mundt, pastry chef at the closed-for-now Stanley, to the fold.

Petänen considers the bakery a test run for his retirement plans. Of course, he’d much rather have his dining room up and running, but it is what it is. “We had a solid five months since opening, and had some savings to fall back on. We’re not in dire straits,” he says. And like so many chefs, he’s holding on to that silver lining. “Normally I smell like sweat and grease,” he says. “But now I smell like cinnamon.”

Agnes pop-up bakery

22 Agnes St, Fortitude Valley, Qld

Open Wed–Sun, 7am-3pm unless sold out earlier

Café Paci

131 King St, Newtown, NSW

Open Thu-Sun, 9am-1pm unless sold out earlier

Navi Bakery

83B Gamon St, Yarraville, Vic

Online pre-orders only. Pre-orders open on Friday, 10am for pick-up on Saturday and Sunday.

More restaurants-turned-bakeries

Attica Bake Shop

72 Glen Eira Rd, Ripponlea, Vic

Open Tue to Sat, 9am-noon, or until sold out

Marta Roman Bakery

30 McLachlan Ave, Rushcutters Bay, NSW

Open Sat-Sun, 9am-noon

More details on Marta’s Instagram

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