Baking Business chats to Pat O’Toole from Bridgewater Bakehouse to find out what keeps this bakery booming in country Victoria.
When I call Pat O’Toole he’s in the car on his way back from helping fight the fires that are devastating so many parts of the country, with hundreds of small communities just like Bridgewater on Loddon being razed to the ground.
Pat is part of Bridgewater’s volunteer fire fighter strike group that was first on the scene in NSW when fire swept through Port Macquarie.
“The panic was pretty bad,” he tells me.
“The whole town was just blanketed in smoke. We couldn’t even see across the street, the smoke was that thick. It was surreal.”
When you live in a small community, locals wear many hats and are always read to lend a hand when other country towns are in crisis.
“When people are in trouble or at risk of losing their homes, you put things on hold to help them out. That’s just what we do and that’s why I’m proud to be Australian. We just get in there, help out and keep things ticking away,” Pat says.
“It was tough but people in those communities and just the public in general are so appreciative of the helping hand.
“It was amazing; when we flew home after our five days there were people at the airport buying us beers just to say thank you. I’ve never experienced that before.”
Having grown up in a small town, country spirit flows through Pat’s veins. He and his wife decided to raise their three children in Bridgewater on Loddon, a 30-minute drive from Bendigo.
The picturesque town offers families an idyllic lifestyle, with its river providing the perfect playground for water sports and recreational activities.
A baker of more than 20 years, Pat opened Bridgewater Bakehouse eight years ago before building a second store in Bendigo.
“I’m not really baking much any more,” he explains.
“Now my role is more just keep everything ticking away between the two stores and managing the day-to-day operations. It’s different to what I’m used to as a baker of but I don’t mind it. It’s good to have change.
“As a small business owner you just learn along the way. You get kicked in the guts every now and then but you just stand up and get on with it.”
As a proud supporter of the town’s sporting teams, Bridgewater Bakehouse plays an important role in the local community beyond being the best place to buy a loaf of bread.
“People support us and we support them. It’s quite simple, really,” Pat says.
“I was in the truck the other day carting grain for one of the local farmers. I did a couple of days with him giving him a hand. It’s just the kind of thing we do for each other out here.”
It’s not lip service either. When a local woman who owned the town’s only post office wanted to sell and couldn’t find a buyer, Pat and a number of other business owners within the community grouped together to buy her out. Because of their efforts, Bridgewater still has a post office—one that dates back to 1906.
Bridgewater Bakehouse has a loyal following, with locals and tourists lining up outside on weekends to snatch up the bakery’s famous pies and award-winning vanilla slices.
Vanilla slice is a staple in the southern states, and Pat is incredibly proud of the fact that the team has won the Great Vanilla Slice Competition two years in a row.
(Spoiler alert: they’re most certainly hoping to make it a hat trick in 2020.)
“It’s a bakery staple, the vanilla slice—along with the meat pie and loaf of bread. Winning the competition has increased sales like you wouldn’t believe, from 50 slices a day to 400 slices a day, and it hasn’t stopped. Some days we have sold up to 1000 slices a day,” Pat says.
“It’s a tough competition. The judges are looking for specific criteria such as height and size and width, the thickness of the pastry, the colour and vanilla flavour of the custard, the icing on top… there’s a lot in it and you have to be perfect to within the millimetre.
“It’s such a nostalgic icon that people expect it to taste a certain way. If you don’t get it right it’s really disappointing for them. So you have to execute it perfectly and it has to live up to those childhood memories—it’s the same with the pavlova and lemon meringue pie.”
Bridgewater Bakehouse also prides itself on its ever-expanding range of gourmet pies, Pat explains.
“We’ve recently introduced a new range of Texas-inspired pies with spicy, smoked brisket. It’s incredible. We’re also doing a smoky buffalo chicken with blue cheese sauce. It’s this sort of stuff that gets you ahead of the market.
“The meat pie is always evolving. It’s a pastry bowl and you can put everything and anything in them. You have to offer variety and keep innovating. We do a roast lamb gravy in our pies that is just sensational and people can’t get enough of it.”
Pat and his wife recently travelled to the US to get inspiration and ideas.
“You have to watch what’s happening in the States,” he says.
“I believe every trend that starts there ends up taking hold here in Australia, so you have to be ahead of it or you’ll get left behind.”
Pat began smoking meats at home with the help of the Bendigo Low and Slow Facebook group. There is a huge community of people exploring smokers who are willing to help each other learn and create. This is a trend Pat believes will continue to go gangbusters.
“The Yanks have been doing it for a long time and Australians have always been masters of the barbecue, so now that we’re getting into smokers it’s just going to build from there. There’s so much you can do to build unique flavours, depending on the smoking chips and spice rubs you use. I mean brisket is traditionally the worst part of the cow, but if you smoke it and cook it long enough and slow enough, it comes out bloody beautiful.”
Pat has also been talking to a Canadian bakery about possible collaborations down the track.
“Yeah, we’ll probably share some secrets between the two of us,” he says.
“We’ll get their recipes for their sugar pies and give them some of our meat pie recipes in return. It’s good to help each other out.”
Speaking of future plans, Pat tells me there’s much in store for the bakehouse in 2020. Firstly, they’re going to have to expand the Bridgewater Store by roughly double the size to cope with growing demand.
“It’s a very old building so we can’t go too big but at the moment we just can’t fit enough people in the door. It’s a fantastic problem to have.”
Indeed it is, and there’s little doubt the bakery will continue to flourish as a beloved part of the Bridgewater community. As the saying goes, watch this space…