With a focus on technique and training, Western Australia’s Denmark Bakery has racked up an enviable number of excellence awards over the past few years. And with a solid apprenticeship program, the bakery will no doubt continue to go from strength to strength.
With modern technology surging forward in leaps and bounds it is becoming easier for bakeries to mass-produce multiple product lines with the aid of hi-tech machinery. However Denmark Bakery is going against this trend and is instead opting to go back to basics.
Making products by hand certainly hasn’t compromised the quality or the quantity of the bakery’s renowned selection. In fact, practicing traditional techniques has enabled Demark Bakery to offer an imaginative and distinctly unconventional product range, including the Vinda-Roo gourmet meat pie – an Indian-inspired kangaroo meat pie that won the game category at the 2010 Official Great Aussie Meat Pie competition.
Nonetheless, awards aren’t always the best indicator of quality. According to owner clete O’Brien (pictured), the true test of quality is when a product is so delicious the customer can’t tell if what they are eating was made by a qualified baker or an apprentice.
With standards like this, it should come as no surprise Denmark Bakery has produced four out of the last five champion apprentices winners at the Perth Royal Show.
“We place a huge emphasis on training at Demark Bakery and our theory is simple; when it comes to training anyone can be a baker but not everyone can be the best,” clete explains.
“So we encourage our apprenticesright from the start and we like them tounderstand what it is they’re actually doing,rather than just come to work and gothrough the motions.
“Small things like understanding ingredients may not seem that important to an apprentice but they quickly realise just how imperative it is when they find themselves having to troubleshoot.”
The mentality that baking is a lifestyle rather than simply a job is a principle that has guided clete throughout his career, and is something he tries to instil in each of his apprentices. A self-proclaimed hard task-master, clete says he will regularly quiz his apprentices or set questions for them to research, maintaining this not only helps to increase their knowledge-base, but also helps to keep himself and the other qualified bakers on their toes.
“We find our apprentices will in turn ask us a question that we inevitably have to go away and study up on, so it all helps to make the business stronger,” clete says.
“You have to devote a lot of time and energy to the trade, so if you are prepared to make it your life, you are more likely to succeed. I hear many bakers complain they are too busy to worry about training, but I believe an apprentice is an investment in your time.
“If you don’t train apprentices you end up doing most of the work yourself, so really it’s short-term pain for long-term gain. And yes it can be frustrating, but believe me having multi-skilled our entire bakehouse workforce has meant we can now focus on running the business and not working in it so much.”
In an ideal world, clete would like to see better theory training for apprentice bakers in Australian institutions; but is quick to admit it’s the employers who can offer the best hands-on experience.
“I understand training providers trial new ideas and trends, but I strongly believe that we as employers have an even bigger role than the training institutions. You must invest your time and energy into your apprentices if you want good results,” clete says.
“It’s no use sending your apprentice away for training and then letting them drift when they get back to the work place. Apprentices are a long-term investment for any business and should be treated just the same way you treat capital expenditure in your business; there must be a pay back along the way.”
And in terms of getting them to stay in the industry, clete says the solution lies in making work places more exciting, more competitive and more varied.
“We have to realise the youth of today have so many more opportunities than we did when we were young, not all that long ago I might add! With travel the way it is, the world has shrunk and the youth want to see it,” clete says.
“Options are plenty and they want to explore them. Most of us in the 50+ age group have probably only had a few jobs in our time, but now, many of the younger generation have three or four careers!
“We have to make workplaces exciting if we have any chance of retaining them. For us, competitions and variety is the key; constantly challenging them keeps their minds on the job. Bored apprentices are restless apprentices, and we are fortunate in our business to do a lot of traditional and ancient styles of baking which ensures no two-days are the same.”
Mixing up daily tasks, ongoing training opportunities and working towards flexible, social friendly working hours has also enabled clete to hang on to quality apprentices.
“For us it’s not about keeping staff, it’s more about making it harder for them to leave us! We work hard to make our workplace better than anyone else’s,” clete says.
But as important as stretching the knowledge-base of employees as is, clete says when it comes to his business, it’s also important for him to protect his brand.
“It is no use winning awards and then not producing high quality standard products on a daily basis,” he says.
With this in mind just as much effortis funnelled into creating and triallingpotential new product lines as developingtheir apprentices.
clete says when he and his wife Sharonbought Denmark Bakery with their long-time friend Sean carley in 2007 it alreadyhad the reputation as being a good bakery,but nonetheless the trio could still see roomfor improvement.
“Our philosophy is quality beats price every time and even before we took over the bakery it was always our intention to specialise in the quality of our products,” clete says.
“Sharon, Sean and I have travelled allacross Australia and beyond benchmarkingthe industry and this has reinforced ourbelief there will always be the need forquality bakeries.
“We have a very large range for a regional bakery and we bake fresh daily, making a variety of gourmet breads and cakes as well as the pies. We like to create products that have a wow factor but we also have many old favourites like the custard horn, bee sting, princess slice, Turkish breads, ciabatta and a special range of what we call the ‘kiddies corner’ with fairy cakes, Mr Freckle and gingerbread men.”
Inspired by their travels, the trio regularly cultivate new ideas for products however it is their customers who are often the greatest source of inspiration.
“Nothing gives us more pleasure than having a customer tell us ‘that was really great’. We always listen to our customer’s feedback, and where possible and practical we act on their feedback,” clete says.
“We never try to dictate to our customers what they should be buying, we constantly look at our sales trends and analyse what is selling and more importantly what isn’t and then make the necessary changes.
“customers are your business’ best barometer and if you don’t give them what they want they will go quickly elsewhere.
”Labelling the decision to open their own bakery in the country rather than a city as a ‘no brainer’, clete says having the freedom to create and develop their own products without being dictated to them by a supermarket chain was another positive. This freedom also enables clete, Sharon and Sean to pursue their ambition of creating a unique business with unusual products.
“We wanted to be really different and out there with our pies, and often we find the inspiration for our pies come from dining out in a restaurant,” clete says.
“We’ll often sit down and eat a nice three course meal and think ‘wow, we could wrap this in pastry and make it into a pie’.”
It was a similar story with their newly released chocolate mousse roulade. A visit to Victoria unveiled the growing popularity of mousse across the state, helping to spark an idea and the creation of a new product began again shortly afterwards.
“We didn’t actually see the roulade inVictoria, and we don’t steal products fromother people, we instead try and adaptnew inventions into our own thinking,”clete explains.
“And depending on the product it can take weeks and weeks for us to develop it. Then we do a lot of internal testing and from there we take to the retail shop and see how it goes. It’s only then, and if we think it’s really good, we enter it into a competition and see what the judges think of it.
“Given the results it can eventually make it onto our menu board or die a slow death.
“But for us it’s not just about the pie, cake or bread roll a customer might buy. What it is really important at the end of the day is the experience of visiting our bakery.”