Businesses in the north Queensland town of Innisfail are doing it tough. Still recovering from 2011’s Cyclone Yasi and watching from a distance as an unprecedented mining boom takes place, bakery owner Sibby Scarcella talks to Australian Baking Business about surviving through sourdough bread.
Sibby’s Bakehouse’s sourdough starter represents a fresh start for owner Sibby Scarcella. Having used bread improvers and one-time doughs his entire 25-year baking career, the 41-year-old’s decision to build a North Queensland bakery based on long fermentation times and European-style breads was a bold move.
Challenged by the aftermath of Cyclone Yasi as well as having to educate customers unfamiliar with the naturally fermented product, Sibby is determined to continue exploring the sourdough artform and successfully commercialise the laborious method used to make artisan bread.
Born into a family of farmers, it was a disaster that first launched Sibby into baking. The Townsville bakery supplying Sibby’s fathers’ bread run burnt down, and Sibby was called in to help the local Innisfail bakery complete the order. The baker asked the 15-year-old if he would like to stay on, and so Sibby began his apprenticeship. The baker went on to work and invest in a number of bakeries, including Goondi Hill Drive Through Bakery and East Innisfail Hot Bread Shop, before launching his new sourdough-focused business.
Sibby was just starting to build the new bakehouse in early 2011 when Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi swept through the area. The cyclone devastated the local economy before moving 450km inland, causing an estimated $3.6 billion in damage. It destroyed crops, causing many local cane and banana farmers to lose their livelihood. With the town’s buildings gutted and their roofs ripped off, finding an electrician or plumber to help build his bakery became very difficult. Sibby persevered, completing the bakery later that year.
Despite Australia’s mining boom delivering a record $190 billion export earnings in 2011, many in Innisfail are struggling to make ends meet.
“The way the economy is going, there’s people getting laid off. Especially up here. It is really bad up here at the moment,” Sibby explained to Australian Baking Business.
“I know one farmer who’s a friend of mine, he’s put off all his staff completely. This is the experience people are having. This hurts this whole town really bad.
“I think we all do (have challenges), but that’s the biggest thing with little towns. When they get hit hard with obviously with disasters or weather, it takes its toll.”
The bakehouse is a culmination of the owner’s life lessons as well as a reflection of changing customers’ tastes. Sibby and his wife Michelle have a dozen staff working for them, with three in production. Tropical North Queensland TAFE teacher Nevon Sachse began visiting the bakery last year to teach Sibby and his bakers how to make a sourdough starter. It is this bread that has become the businesses’ unique selling point.
“I wanted to do something completely different. That’s why I wanted to do everything about artisan bread,” Sibby said.
“What I’m finding is a lot of people… they can’t eat gluten, they can’t eat wheat, they can’t eat this or that. And you’ve got to make bread to suit people’s health now. That’s the way it’s going,” he said.
“When I get called to the front [of shop] a lot of times, people do ask, ‘What’s in it? What’s the process?’ And I tell them how I start it, how I make the starter and how the process goes through.”
The bakery makes a poolish starter that sits for 14 hours before being developed and allowed to rest for a further three hours. Nevon is returning to the bakery regularly to continue sharing his knowledge and introducing Sibby and his bakers to the full range of artisan bread styles available.
“Apparently what he’s shown us is only the tip of sourdoughs, so we’re still learning,” Sibby said.
The 17-hour labour-intensive process means the sourdough bread lines is priced higher than his other breads, although he feels they are still cheaper than city prices.
“Down in Brisbane and Melbourne, I have checked prices and I have seen this type of bread, sourdough, ryes, ciabattas… up to $7, $8 dollars a loaf. At the moment I’m selling it for $6,” he said.
Sibby’s Bakehouse has been furbished with specialised artisan equipment from International Bakery Equipment, including mixers, ovens and provers for producing long-fermentation doughs. Powering the artisan process is a Zelleta divider and overhead intermediate prover, a Logiudice Forni rack oven and a Thermogel retarder prover.
The tough economic conditions and a hesitant market means it is “crunch time” for the bakery. While at East Innisfail Bakery, Sibby would go through four tonnes of flour a week. Sibby’s Bakehouse is only averaging 30 bags a week. Supermarkets marketing one dollar bread loaves are also adding to the pressure.
But despite the uphill challenge of making a labour-intense product in a weakened market, Sibby is determined to make his new business a sourdough success.
“The only thing with baking, it’s the hours. But in the end, it is a good lifestyle,” he said.
“You want to see the new product come out and be pleased with it. And you can say, ‘Look at that, I made that. That’s me’.”