With four generations, an almost 100-year-old wood oven, a commitment to traditional recipes, and a locally renowned “hangover cure”, the Fechner family know what it takes to run a successful bakery in the South Australian wine region.
When Keith Fechner stuck his head through the door of the Apex Bakery in 1926 to ask if there was any work going, he was a mere boy looking for a before and after school job to support his struggling family.
Ninety-four years and four generations later, the bakery is the heart of the Fechner family, with traditional recipes passed down from father, to son, to grandson still baked in the wood oven that has been fired up every day for close to 100 years to continue the “true Barossa style of baking”.
Apex Bakery, situated in Tanunda in South Australia’s Barossa Valley region, was founded in 1924 by Mr Albert Hoffman. Two years later, Keith ‘Chiney’ Fechner started work the same day he applied, and remained until the opportunity to purchase the bakery arose when he was 33. Chiney (the nickname he got from his cricketing background) begged and borrowed money from wherever he could and managed to secure Apex for himself.
Now, it is Chiney’s grandson Corey carrying on his grandfather’s legacy and ensuring the tradition of producing unique, high quality products continues.
“My grandfather started here when he was 12 years old,” Corey says.
“The business had been going for about a year before he came here, and he came from a pretty poor background and he needed to work, so he started working here before and after school at the age of 12.
“He’s stayed here ever since, basically, until he was about 92 years old, I think we finally got him out the door!”
Corey’s father, Brian, and his uncles, David and Johnny (twins) came into the business and the three brothers were running it up until about four years ago, when Corey purchased the business. In true family style, Corey’s cousin and David’s son, Josh, also works in the bakery.
A typical day for Corey is pretty hectic, as most small-business owners can relate to, and changes depending on what needs his attention most urgently.
“I’ve got seven full-time staff, and I basically do their jobs when they’re not here, if that makes sense,” he says.
“So seven months of the year I’m on the tools somewhere, and the other times of the year I’m working on the business or just basically trying to catch up on paperwork.
“When it’s ‘go’ time – like it is at the moment – I’ll start at 3 o’clock in the morning, or get here at ten to three in the morning and, then go through production… get that all done by about 11 o’clock, and then I’ll start doing some paperwork; do pays, do accounts, do all of that stuff – ordering and whatever else needs doing.
“I mean, I literally live next door to the bakery so I don’t really get to clock off.”
As for whether Apex will carry over into the next generation of the Fechner family, both Corey and David have a son and a daughter each, but Corey says it is unclear whether they will come on board.
“We’ll see,” he says.
“I’ll probably do exactly what my father did to me and use reverse psychology and tell them to go away and don’t come to work here. I do have a son, and Josh has a son as well so there is the opportunity there for one of them to continue it – or daughters; we’ve both got daughters as well. As a matter of fact, my daughter’s probably the most interested at this point in time but she’s only nine, so who knows what’s going to happen.
“Honestly, it’s hard out there as I’m sure you’re well aware with all the big businesses doing what they do for the price they do these days – you’ve got to keep a point of difference.”
And that point of difference is something Apex has in spades, with its wood oven and traditional recipes.
“I think that’s probably why we’re a little bit lucky,” Corey says.
“I’d be silly to go away from that.”
Corey explains that the “true Barossa style of baking” refers to the slow-ferment preparation they use, which was brought to the region by European settlers.
“The English [arrived] first, then they sold a lot of land to Silesian and German people,” he says.
“They were trying to get away from religious persecution in what is now Germany, and they moved out here and bought land, and a lot of Italians came as well.
“They couldn’t actually replicate their recipes that they had in Europe exactly the same because the wheats are a lot harder here and temperatures were different, so they adapted the recipes to the Barossa and it’s those recipes which we try to keep alive today.”
Slow-fermentation carries a lot of health benefits for consumers, which is something Corey has researched.
“When I asked my dad that question (what the benefits of slow-fermentation are), going back probably 13 years ago now, he said ‘I dunno, it’s just the way we’ve always done it,’” he says.
“So I looked into it a little bit with a lot of help from Laucke’s Flour Mills. Mark Laucke did a lot of research into the health benefits of fermentation and worked out that the health benefits (from memory) is that after 10 hours… the glutens and proteins start to break down and therefore your stomach can digest the flours a lot easier.
“Originally, my grandfather used to ferment potatoes and then scrape the yeast off the potatoes and that was how we started the yeast. So it’s, I guess, a semi-sourdough style and we’ve continued that same recipe.
“We now use fresh yeast that we buy – we don’t ferment potatoes anymore – but it’s the same strain of yeast. We also do sourdoughs that are – I want to say traditional – but the new traditional way.
“But our true-Barossa breads are a 12-hour ferment with fresh yeast, and it’s a .5 per cent yeast – a very small amount.”
Aside from a small gas oven for overflow, Corey fires up the famous Wood-Fired Scotch Oven that has been used every working day since the bakery opened in 1924. Unlike modern ovens, which can be easily controlled, catching the right temperatures to bake particular products in the wood oven is a skill learned over time.
“The oven is what we call a 300-loaf oven, so when we get up over 300 loaves we run out of space,” Corey says.
“And the oven works in that we fire it in the morning, obviously, and then at the hottest point you can put your breads in, then as it slowly cools down you’ve got to put different products in to try to catch the right temperature.
“It is an art; it is a real fine line we have to work when things go in. Like I was saying, bread loaves go in first because they’re in either in open top tins or closed top tins so they can handle more heat, then rolls will go in next, then cakes, then buns, and last is pastries. So as it slowly cools down we chuck in the different products.”
Despite having locally loved and unique products on the shelves, Corey says he doesn’t bother entering the big competitions like the Great Aussie Pie Competition because the products are too unique to conform to the guidelines.
“We have once before and – to be perfectly honest with you – we didn’t do so well,” he says.
“You have to sort of go to what the judges are looking for, and we don’t want to adjust – we’re happy with our products being unique. We cruise along; we’re okay.
“Like I said, we’ve got our unique products that people come back for day in and day out so we’ll keep doing our thing.”
And there’s one product in particular that has achieved local acclaim as a bit of a morning-after necessity – the Barossa version of the Maccas hash brown if you will. So what is the Apex Pasty?
“It’s just an Australian style pasty, not a Cornish pasty – so it’s got beef and it’s got carrots in it, which a Cornish pasty doesn’t,” Corey explains.
“But it’s just something that, through no design of our own, because of the Barossa being – for lack of a better word – an alcohol-driven economy, it’s quite common for wine makers in the region to have a big night doing what they do, and they’ll pop in and grab their pasty first thing and get on with their day.”