Sweet Bones: A Sweet Life

Boasting loads of personality and an ever-changing array of vegan baked products, Canberra’s Sweet Bones Bakery and Café is part of a new generation of bakeries that glories in serving up old favourites with a new twist.

Hidden inside a Canberran warehouse, in the trendy suburb of Braddon, is a rare gem of a bakery.

With an emphasis on serving up “home-style” favourites, Sweet Bones Bakery and Café has one major distinguishing factor – the entire range is 100 per cent vegan.

Despite vegan food long being misrepresented as boring, bland and tasteless, Sweet Bones Bakery and Café owners – and proud vegans – Emily and Russell Brindley are living proof baked goods free of animal products can, in fact, be absolutely delicious.

Originally a wholesale business, its first incarnation was in 2011 after Emily’s US-based parents headed home following a visit. The blues set in and in an attempt to cheer herself up, the trained chef headed to the kitchen.

Emily succeeded in baking her sadness away, but more importantly, the cupcakes she created were so impressive her brother-in-law demanded to know why she wasn’t selling them commercially.

“Russell’s brother then made a phone call that led to a meeting with our first wholesale customer,” Emily says.

After a few months of hard work, the duo were running a successful wholesale business. Still, they dreamed of one day opening a bakery/café and, when a retail space became available in the trendy Traders Mall on Lonsdale Street, the enthusiastic pair leapt at the chance to set up their own space.

Describing it as a natural process to transition from wholesale to running their own bakery, Russell says it was a big step to take, nevertheless.

“Pretty much we’d outgrown the kitchen we were using for our wholesale business and we needed to do something – whether it was get a bigger commercial kitchen for our wholesale work or do that and get a shopfront as well. We were really ready and just needed to take the next step,” Russell says.

“The perfect location popped up and we made the commitment,” Emily adds.

Decorated with reclaimed wood, lucky horseshoes and succulents, the bakery exudes a definite rockabilly vibe and in the 12 months since the doors first opened it has become a go-to place for Canberra’s young and hip. But it’s much more than the décor that attracts these customers.

Each day, following a staff “family lunch” and some punk rock tunes to wake everyone up, Emily and her crew get to work stocking the bakery’s cabinets with an array of cakes – including their renowned rosette cakes– miniature doughnuts, brownies, biscuits and muffins as well as raw cheesecakes and balls, while Russell mans the coffee machine.

It can be a big task, but the glowing response from their customers makes it worth it.

“We were actually really surprised by how many vegans came out of the woodwork once we opened – we knew there were a lot of them but it’s been pretty great,” Emily says.

“But we do also get a lot of customers who don’t know we’re a vegan bakery and will come back in and tell us how delicious everything was. I’ll be like ‘oh yeah, it was vegan’ and they’ll be pretty shocked.”

In a field that relies heavily on the use of eggs and dairy, developing a bakery range free of animal products can result in something of an experimental process. But Emily says it’s not only possible to create a vegan range that is delicious, it’s also easy.

Some of the adaptations that are regularly implemented in vegan baking include the use of apple cider vinegar and soy milk, which curdle when combined and are used instead of milk, while the vinegar will also react when baking soda is added and help cakes to rise.

“We also use ground flax meal mixture in our brownies to help bind the mixture together instead of eggs. We try not to use the No Egg egg replacement, but it does often come in handy – it’s basically just starches like tapioca starch, potato starch and xanthan gum,” Emily says.

“But the baking process is really the same. I think maybe it’s less perishable – less prone to go rancid – and it’s easier to clean up because it’s less greasy.”

In fact, she says, often the most difficult aspect in her baking process can be perfecting a recipe so it meets her high standards.

“Our cheesecake recipe, that we’ve had since before we opened the shop, we thought was pretty good but it was always pretty flat – not like a real cheesecake. The taste was there but it was just the height I needed. But I finally perfected it this year after seven years of being a vegan,” Emily laughs.

“But the number of new products we make for Sweet Bones depends really on how many mistakes I make. We try to keep the range really interesting and keep people excited, but a lot of the time the new products are some kind of mistake that one of us has made and we’re trying to save them.”

One example of this, Emily says, is Sweet Bones Bakery’s ever-popular sugar skull cookies, which were created while trying to save a disastrous banana bread mix.

“Someone had given me the cookie cutters and I put off making anything with them for months and months. Then the staff were making banana bread and it somehow turned into a bit of a disaster, but I turned that into the sugar-filled cookie,” she says.

“It works out sometimes, but I’m a bit of a perfectionist so there are still some recipes I’m not that happy with and am still trying to develop.

“But we can also be inspired when we see something that’s not vegan and we’ll go ‘oh, how can we veganise that?’”

“Our staff are pretty creative so someone will get a good idea and work on it for a while, but then all of a sudden it will be the best thing you’ve ever tasted and we’ll go ‘right, that’s going on the menu’,” Russell adds.

Sweet Bones Bakery and Café’s popularity is continuing to grow by leaps and bounds, to the point where Russell and Emily say they have “maxed out” their current space and are discussing plans for Sweet Bones number two. The location is yet to be determined and the only requirement so far is it must include a walk-in refrigerator.

“I’m dreaming of that!” Emily laughs.

“The building we’re in is not a permanent space – it’s going to get developed in the coming years so we’ll be looking for something more permanent,” Russell says.

With Canberra undergoing something of a food revolution in recent years and a huge number of new restaurants and cafés regularly opening, it’s difficult to successfully make your mark and stand apart from the crowd.

Nonetheless, Emily and Russell say it’s simply a matter of sticking to what you know and what you are passionate about.

“Being vegan isn’t hard if your passionate about your health and you care about other living animals. It just really makes sense to us and it’s really easy,” Emily says.

“And if you love food you just need to be inventive and think outside the box a little bit,” Russell adds.

“All good bakers need to be creative.”

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