When it comes to coffee and baked goods, there’s not much you can’t get in Melbourne. However, Collingwood newcomer To Be Frank is changing the way the trendsetting city looks at bread, and how it takes its coffee.
Locals were surprised when Franco Villalva and Lauren Parsons opened To Be Frank in Collingwood before Christmas – leading up to a notoriously quiet time for hospitality – but Franco and Lauren were grateful to have the time to settle in and figure out their processes before business picked up in February.
With Melbourne always ahead of the curve in terms of the latest trends in food and fashion, it can be difficult to bring in something truly unique, but hand-in-hand with partner Lauren, Franco has managed to exceed expectations with his eclectic range.
Collingwood was a deliberate choice for the couple that were looking for a progressive suburb to set up shop, where fresh ideas and a more sustainable way of living and doing business would be welcomed with open arms.
“We really loved the suburb; we’ve lived here previous years,” Lauren says.
“Franco actually lived just a few streets away for a while before we moved to Thailand, actually. We were generally looking just north-side but we found the warehouse which we have converted into the bakery; we really loved the location of.”
Franco, who has only just eaten breakfast when I phone to speak at midday – “breakfast-lunch”, he laughs – explains that the process has been harder than they anticipated.
“It is quite hard, actually harder than we thought, but we are trying to be a little bit more sustainable,” he says.
“And not to be cool. It’s because we actually feel it is needed, and I think in this area people are way more conscious about that, and that was one of the main points. Looking on the north side like Thornbury, Collingwood, Fitzroy – people are a little bit more open-minded and friendly and understand that today’s not only about being [eco] friendly on Instagram. It’s now that we actually need to make a little change.”
Although they saw plenty of cheaper spaces, the locations and feel weren’t what Lauren and Franco had envisioned for To Be Frank.
“The bakery is completely open and when you are standing ordering bread or looking at us working, you are also standing also in the bakery itself where we bake,” Franco explains.
“It’s a bit of a novelty thing for people, you know ‘oh I’m standing actually in the bakery, with the baker, making the rye right next to me’, so it’s quite cool and nowadays we do have all the people that come almost everyday, which is nice.
“It took us a little bit to find a space, but we found it and we are actually finding the customers like the idea and what we do.”
In terms of environmentally sustainable practices, even the notoriously progressive inner-North Melbourne locals were taken aback by To Be Frank’s policies in the beginning, although with some adjustments, they’ve gained a decent following.
“At the very beginning we weren’t giving any take away cups for coffees, so a few people walked away without a coffee or even a pastry and we were a little bit sad to see that happening,” Franco says.
This policy doesn’t leave customers without their own cups in the lurch without their precious caffeine hit, though. Instead, To Be Frank is signed up with Green Caffeen, a free reusable café cup system targeted to eco-friendly cafes.
Customers can download the Green Caffeen app on their phones for free and sign up. To buy a coffee at a participating café, it’s a matter of scanning a code using the app, getting the beverage in a re-usable cup, and then simply returning the used cup to any participating café – saving a cup from landfill.
In the first few months of trade, To Be Frank were the only Melbourne café using the system, so few customers knew about it. However, the concept is gaining traction and Franco says more businesses are signing up.
The coffee of course is an essential part of having a bakery in Melbourne, but it’s just an added bonus at To Be Frank. The real reason customers are coming in is for the fresh, unique bakery products on offer.
Franco worked as a pastry chef for more than 15 years in restaurants all over the world, including Buenos Aires, Argentina, Spain, France and Australia – where he spent five years at Bacash Restaurant in South Yarra.
However, Argentinian-born Franco actually found the inspiration for To Be Frank in an unlikely location – Thailand. Visiting his friend, Jonathan, at Amantee Bakery in Bangkok, Franco was so impressed with the bread he tasted that he and Lauren moved there for over a year in 2017/18 to learn the technique.
“We decided we wanted to bring this back to Melbourne and open up here,” says Lauren, who worked in pharmaceuticals for 15 years prior to opening To Be Frank.
“The style of bread that we do is a little bit different to what we find today in Australia,” explains Franco.
“As a baker/pastry chef I used to make sourdoughs for the little bakeries. I got very interested and I did that for the last 12 years, always baking in-house, and then I went to visit my friend in Bangkok.
“In Bangkok there’s a big French and European community, so nowadays they’re doing great. They’re having a massive production, and all of this is with incredible flour that comes from Europe, as in Asia nothing grows as we know because it’s very hot and dry. So unfortunately they have to import everything, which means their footprint is quite high.”
What could be so amazing about this bread, you ask? Franco says the main point of difference is that it’s a yeasted bread, not the sourdough that reigns in popularity across most of Australia. However, it isn’t like the varieties of yeast breads you’d generally find in supermarkets, which he explains is made with a high amount of yeast and proved within a couple of hours, leaving it with not only excessive yeast, but also extra gluten and malt.
“We normally think yeast is not very good for you,” he says.
“But when you taste the bread in To Be Frank bakery, you can taste the actual grains, the actual flour, which sourdoughs don’t allow you to taste.
“Even though I love sourdoughs – I make some sourdoughs – but these long-fermentation breads that take about 15 hours to prove and to develop gluten, they taste really different.
“With sourdough, the sour taste will take over a bit of the flavour. With the yeast – I use a very minimal amount of yeast, one gram per litre of water, and that water hydrates about one kilo of flour, or maybe even more, so in two kilos of flour I have only one gram of yeast, which is very minimal.
“And when I mix, I do not develop the gluten. We actually combine all the dough, and once it’s combined, overnight it’s mixed every hour, only for five seconds.”
There’s nothing top secret here; Franco is very generous and more than happy to share his technique, especially with his clientele of other bakers who come in to learn.
Using a mixer that replicates the folds bakers would normally do by hand, air is incorporated into the dough, allowing the gluten to develop. The dough is then proved at 25 degrees to develop the lactic acid.
The long fermentation times, Franco explains, means the gluten gets completely hydrated and breaks up, resulting in a loaf that doesn’t cause the bloating and other gut issues people often get from eating other breads, including sourdough.
Franco makes his dough with stoneground flour, using 80 per cent of the grain or higher – no white flour, although the loaf appears white. He also makes a daily “healthy bread” using activated grains with no additives. The fougasse, a French-style focaccia, comes with blue cheese or olives, and there are croque monsieurs too with ham, cheese and béchamel.
And those coming in hoping for a traditional Argentinian sweet won’t leave disappointed. Although Franco doesn’t do a lot of dishes from his home country, he has added a pastry from his upbringing.
“The only one we do, because my whole life I’ve worked with French people, so I know more about French boulangerie and patisserie than Argentinian, is called factura,” he says.
Factura is a flaky pastry folded in half like a taco then filled with dulce de leche (made the proper way by churning milk, not from condensed milk), and appears on the menu with other sweets including French viennoisserie favourites like almond croissants, pain au chocolat, escargot, and more.
And while it seems Franco has certainly brought a touch of multiple other cultures to Melbourne with To Be Frank, when I asked how he met Lauren, it was pretty clear some Aussie culture has seeped into him too.
“We met in a romantic…,” he starts.
“In a bar. We met in a bar.
“Like normal people.”