As Robert Burns wrote, “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry”, and no one knows this better than anyone who has experience getting a new business off the ground. For Flywheel Bakery co-owner Ant Wallace, plans to open a high-end sandwich shop in Melbourne’s bustling CBD were derailed in 2020—the year everything went awry—but after a bit of backtracking, pivoting and a lockdown or five, the outcome is even better than he originally planned.
Ant and Anthony Abazis were already business partners in another café in Caulfield North, but both felt that what the city centre was missing was a really good quality sandwich shop to cater to the high-end corporates.
“We thought, ‘okay, let’s do a high-end sandwich shop—like a high-end Subway with top ingredients and brilliant bread’,” Ant says.
But while the brilliant bread was plentiful in Melbourne, it presented the first snag for the pair.
“We started looking around at everything that we could find and tried to find a really good bread supplier,” Ant says.
“But the price point was way too high and we thought, ‘this ain’t gonna work’.
“We went, ‘fuck it, let’s just set up our own bakery there as well!’”
With some help from the genius behind Q le Baker, Quentin Berthonneau, who consulted on the project, Flywheel Bakery—which gets its name from the flywheel used to cut delicious cured meats—was ready to rise.
“[Quentin] set everything up and found us a French baker/pastry chef who’s our head baker now,” Ant says.
“He basically introduced pastry to us, so as well as doing all of our sourdough products, we are now making our own pastries—croissants, almond croissants, pain au chocolat and a few other goodies—all onsite.”
Flywheel sits smack bang on Flinders Street by the iconic landmark Flinders Street Station, but if you didn’t already know the bakery was there, you might not notice it because it sits back behind the retail storefront, hidden behind frosted glass on the ground floor of an office building.
“At the moment, a lot that come in see our retail space and they might think, ‘maybe they just get their stuff from Noisette’ or something like that because it’s kind of hidden that we’ve got that bakery there,” Ant explains.
“It will take a bit of time to get that kind of exposure and until people realise that.
“It’s a bit like a secret Willy Wonka’s bakery!”
Ready and rearing to open in March of 2020, COVID-19 threw another spanner in the works, sending Melbourne into lockdown and turning the CBD into a veritable ghost town. To keep the flywheel spinning and the bakers baking, they started doing some wholesale, but actually only opened the shopfront in April this year after a false-start before Christmas.
“We opened it up in December for about two weeks, but found there was still no flow in the city,” Ant says.
Along with the usual challenges of operating a CBD business—high rents and cranky delivery drivers who can’t find parking—the shockwaves of those strict lockdown periods are still being felt, with Ant saying their core market of city corporate workers is still not back to normal.
“People are either working from home or offices are down to 50 per cent capacity,” he explains.
“City traffic is down, whereas one of the bonuses if we were to set up in a residential area is residential bakeries are so much busier now because people are working from home.
“Which is why we’re going to do more of a push, rather than just on those high-end sandwiches, on our pastries and our breads because they’re much more of an affordable product—instead of a $12 sandwich, you can get a $6.50 croissant, which is freshly baked. “Instead of a sandwich shop with a bakery, we want it to now be known as a bakery with a sandwich shop—if that makes sense.”
The bakers have also created a signature Shokupan bread—a soft, fluffy Japanese milk bread—which they’re using in their range of croque monsieurs.
“They’ve been a hit,” Ant says.
“Miky, our head baker, has also created a new product which is a hybrid between an éclair and a croissant, so it’s long shaped croissant pastry filled with flavoured creams/custards. “We currently have vanilla, chocolate, pandan and soon to come, mango and sticky rice, and black sesame.”
It’s clear the Flywheel team possesses the agility to adapt and make adjustments as needed to get the best out of the business as he learns the patterns of city workers, like setting up an online shop and pre-ordering facility, as well as extending opening hours.
“We close at three and that’s stupid; we haven’t even taken into account people on their way home who can quickly go in, grab the bread and whatever they may need—even some packaged stuff like cold meats—for dinner,” he says.
“Instead of getting home, having to get in the car and go to the supermarket, they do the pre-order—it’s already there, they grab it, then jump on the train and go home.”
In another unfortunate turn of events since opening, Flywheel was rattled by a Victorian Government decision to open a safe injecting room nearby. With crime already high—within the first couple of months of opening, the shop had already been targeted by vandals—Ant feared the injecting room, if given the green light, would cause a drop in foot traffic if commuters started bypassing Flinders Street Station.
Despite the backlash against the plan initially, Ant has once again adapted, taking an “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude and looking at providing some “pro bono pastries” to the rooms on a daily basis.
Currently, the bakery’s busiest period (when the city isn’t in lockdown) is the morning, with commuters popping in for a grab-and-go breakfast and pastries to take back to the office.
“Once we have a lot more awareness, I think that’s when things will pick up. We’ll become more of a destination place,” Ant says.
There are a few chairs for customers in the Flywheel lobby currently, but Ant says they are in the process of setting up the actual bakery side to accommodate some tables and chairs, so customers can dine in and see the bread and pastries being made.
“When you walk into the bakery section you can see we’ve got these nice beautiful Salva bread ovens there, you can smell the hot bread and pastries being cooked in there and then they get brought out the front on a regular basis to stock up,” Ant says.
“It’s kind of cool; there’s a bit of theatre. And we do have a few wholesale clients including one in Flinders lane—literally 100 metres away—and every morning the bakers carry the bread crates down Degraves Street past all the cafes to this place in Flinders Lane called The Journal, which is cool in itself.
“We’ve also started supplying a specialty bread—Turkish Bread—that we made up specially with Hector’s Deli in Richmond.
“Hector’s has a second shop opening up down at the South Melbourne Market and we’re going to be making all of their bread as of July.”
From planning a little high-end sandwich shop and ending up with a full-on bakery, the Flywheel adventure shows that when plans go awry, wonderful things can come out of it when you’re open to the possibilities.
“That’s the reason why we did it, because we just wanted to have the freshest ingredients and kind of be able to control the whole supply chain, from the bread to as much ingredients as we could,” he says.
“That’s the story behind it.”
Sometimes you just have to say, “fuck it, let’s open a bakery”.