All in the family: For more than 40 years O’Brien’s Wagga Hot Bake has been an institution in the Riverina region. Now, the next generation of the O’Brien family is gearing up to step up to the helm.
For more than four decades baking has been a family affair for the O’Brien family.
The story begins in 1979 when the Hot Bake in their hometown of Wagga Wagga came up for sale. Peter had been a baker at the business since 1975, and was keen to take his next career step. With that in mind, he and his brother Mark – also a baker – along with their wives Vicki and Barb decided to take the plunge and bought the bakery.
In the intervening 40 years the team at O’Brien’s Wagga Hot Bake has focused on producing a traditional product range with attention placed on quality over quantity. It’s been a business decision that has more than paid off, with more than 2500 customers welcomed through the doors each week. Not bad for a town that Peter says doesn’t rely on tourism dollars to drive sales.
“We’re not a tourist town here. We’re everyday people and we’re in a place that people actually live in. We don’t rely on tourist trade because we haven’t got it,” Peter says.
“The business has changed over the years and trends have come and gone, but we’ve really kept to a traditional bakery range. We’re big on pies, sandwiches and cakes, and perhaps our most famous item is our pepper pie. It’s a recipe we made because we like the flavour ourselves. We use top quality steak and cook the meat for hours and it is just beautiful. A lot of people know us because of that particular pie.
“I’ve always had a passion for making really nice stuff. A lot of bakeries will keep their food for the next day, but we don’t do that. I’ve always said we’ve only got two things to sell and that’s a smile out the front and a good product. If we don’t have that, we’ve got nothing.”
Describing O’Brien’s Wagga Hot Bake as a CBD business, over the years Peter and his team have seen many other bakery franchises set up around Wagga Wagga, which in turn has changed consumer demand within their business. As a result Peter says they now bake just 40 loaves a day, whereas back in the early 1980s when they were trading seven-days-a-week the team of bakers would turn out 1000 cheese and bacon rolls alongside 1200 bread loaves and 20 bags of bread rolls on a Sunday morning.
Peter says looking back on that period he finds their production numbers just incredible.
“It was just phenomenal. But this was also before in-store bakeries were a thing. As they came in we had to change, so we changed to a little sit down bakery. But now with COVID we’ve gone back to a takeaway bakery and have been quite busy just with pies and sandwiches,” Peter says.
“We’ve got a couple of new players that have come into Wagga, but they’re more sourdough-type places and French-style bakeries. People will go to those places specifically to get a nice baguette or a sourdough, so we’ve stuck to more traditional items. We found that people still like custard tarts, apple slices and meat pies and that there’s a real market for those products in the country.”
Mark and Barb left the business a number of years ago, although they both still lend a hand when it’s needed, while Peter and Vicki stayed on to run the ship with the help of their children, Tim and Crystal. Now, Peter says the time has also come for them to take a step back and leave the bakery in their children’s capable hands. And capable they certainly are – Tim has been baking alongside his father for 15 years while Crystal has helped out front-of-house for years.
Tim’s decision to step into the bakery was a surprise for Peter, as he expected him to become a mechanic or tattooist, however with a number of Great Australian Pie Competition medals already under his belt it’s obvious baking runs in the blood for this family.
Peter says his and Vicki’s decision to make the move into semi retirement wasn’t an easy one to make, however at 67-years-old it has proved necessary.
“I get too worn out so I do four hours at a time now,” he says.
“I just get buggered too quickly these days.”
When asked what semi retirement looked like for both himself and Vicki, Peter laughed and said plenty of hours would still be spent at O’Brien’s Wagga Hot Bake overseeing the business and helping out to ensure a smooth transition for the next generation.
“I asked Tim if he would like to take on the business and he said he was keen. He’s at a good age, he’s young and healthy and knows the run of the place. He knows all the little problems there are each day,” Peter says.
“We’re just going to stay there for the next few years but on reduced hours and just help as much as we can. You can’t just stop after doing this for so many years.”