A Lifelong Passion

Nicol Strang holding a tray of unbaked bread rolls in the Woolworths kitchen

Nicol Strang has been part of the baking industry since he got started back in Scotland when he was 15. After over 40 years in the industry, Nicol recently took part in his first baking competition—the Woolworths Baker of the Year, which he won. Baking Business sat down with Nicol to have a chat about his win and his ongoing passion for baking.

When asked what prompted his move to Australia, Nicol’s answer comes easily.

“The sun! It’s very, very grey in Scotland,” he laughs.

“My big brother ended up immigrating here… It was a case of it being that time in your life, [time to] throw caution to the wind. We’d never been to Australia before, but we put the papers in and got off the plane. And that was it.

“We’ve been here ever since, and that’s just over 20 years now.”

And in all that time, Nicol has been baking. Since starting out at 15, his passion for the industry hasn’t waned, he says.

“It’s had a few twists and turns, but I still enjoy baking. It’s the sort of trade where you’re always developing, you’re always learning something new—it never stays still,” Nicol says.

“And because it’s such a temperate job, with different conditions, different strengths of flour, and things like that, it can be a challenging job—it keep you on your toes.

“The training aspect of it too. Youngsters are coming through that are passionate about [the industry], and you’re passing on your experience.”

But that’s not the only thing that Nicol enjoys about the baking profession. Surprisingly, the early starts are also something that he enjoys.

“I’ve got to admit, I love the hours,” Nicol says.

“I’m not a nine to five person, and I don’t think I could ever work a nine to five job. I love the early mornings.”

Another thing that Nicol says is great about the profession is the variety of different projects and products that it enables him to create.

“I’ve had experience all over—bread, cakes, slices, wedding cakes… That’s all been part of the job over the years, and it gives you a varied insight into baking. You’re building and learning all the time and of course getting to meet people on the way, because you want to do the best that you can, so you seek out the best,” he says.

The dedication to and passion that Nicol has for the industry has seen him, along with his wife, own and run two Brumby’s Bakery franchises in Perth.

“We started off down here in Perth with one of those, then we went to two stores,” he says.

After running the businesses for 15 years, Nicol and his wife made the decision to move on.

“It was just one of those forks in the road that everybody experiences, where you’ve got to make decisions in your life. But we could hold our heads high—we did it for 15 years,” he says.

Looking ahead after that experience, Nicol says it’s unlikely that he would ever go back to owning his own business.

“I think the parameters for being a small business are rapidly changing, and it’s getting more and more difficult now. In these times, everybody’s looking after every cent, so how can you justify the proper cost of a loaf of bread?,” he says.

“Plus, I’m enjoying myself.”

There is a freedom, Nicol says, in being able to hang up his apron at the end of a shift and return home without worrying about the running of a business.

“I can come home and do other things—I do woodworking and things like that. I quite enjoy that aspect of it. It doesn’t tie me down to one place, so I get a wee bit more time for myself.

“I’m not getting any younger! So, I don’t think I can see me going back and owning my own business,” he says.

“We did it for 15 years, and we were successful, but we just decided to take another path.”

This other path led Nicol to Woolworths, where he now bakes for the Forest Lakes store in WA. The one and a half years Nicol has spent with the retail giant, he says, have been incredibly supportive.

This atmosphere of support and care for Nicol’s work culminated this year in him winning the Woolworths Baker of the Year.

“That was the first baking competition I’d ever entered,” Nicol says.

“It was something that I’d been asked to do in various places, but I’ve got varied interests outside [of baking], and I always seemed to be too busy, but I was asked by my store manager to enter.”

After first winning in his regional area, Nicol went on to win the overall Perth round of the competition, which progressed him through to the national level of competition.

“It was a fantastic tournament,” he says.

“The organisation… was tremendous. And to do that for the bakers, recognition of the hard work that does happen, was fantastic.”

The final round of competition was held in Sydney, where the state winners from around the country had to produce Woolworths’ Traditional Hot Cross Buns, which were judged on fruit distribution, crumb colour, aroma, and texture.

After making it through this round, Nicol was named the winner of the title of Woolworths Baker of the Year.

Now, he says, he’s got a bit of the competition bug.

“I was asked to enter into the one we have over here in WA, which is inclusive of any bakery—the Baking Industry Employers Association of Western Australia. I entered seven different categories,” Nicol says.

“And I’ll definitely be back on the trail for the Woolworths one next year!”

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