For the owners of the Mt Barker Bakery in Western Australia, country life is both hectic and rewarding, with the hard work never ending.
When I call to speak to Christine Porter in the early afternoon, her husband, Mick Dumbrell, is asleep, having been up at 2am to bake everything ready to sell in their bakery from 5am.
Christine and Mick are the owners of the Mt Barker Country Bakery, and for them, work never stops. They opened the bakery in the tiny town in the Great Southern region of Western Australia in 2006 and things have been hectic ever since.
Despite the fact pastry chef and baker, Mick, is up for his shift at 2am while Christine works later in the day, she says they still manage to spend time together, although sometimes it’s more of a “passing like ships in the night” situation.
“At times it is, it can be,” she says.
“He does the kitchen, so he does the early bakehouse part, while I do more the shopfront—the management and office side —of it. I try not to do any actual particular shift or job in the bakery because otherwise I can’t get all the other stuff done.
“But we do work together quite a bit. He’s home now and he’s sleeping, he had an early day today and has been asleep since about 10 o’clock, so he’ll sleep for a few hours in the day, then get up in the evening or late afternoon.”
Even then, the bakery is front and centre in their lives.
“We’ve got a coffee sales rep coming to dinner tonight,” Christine says.
“He’s doing training at the bakery this afternoon—it all just revolves around the bakery!”
In a town of a little over 1000 people, the bakery is a big employer with 20 staff on the books, most working full time.
“Because it is open seven days a week and we make everything from scratch—we don’t buy in anything—most of the staff are full time.
“We’ve got a really good, big staff that run the place and supervisors.
“We even get backpackers through, which is really, really good. We employ two backpackers at a go and they’re fantastic.
“It’s a great way to bring new blood and personalities into a small town.”
Located off the Albany Highway, Christine says the bakery gets a “huge amount” of visitors just passing through as well as locals buying its products.
“We’re almost a bit of a tourist destination; people come to us.
“We’re off the highway, but we have signs all out on the highway, we’re open seven days so we’ve got signs up saying ‘open seven days’ and ‘open at 5am’, so we’re always open.”
She says the surrounding towns, landscape and coast are what bring tourists through Mt Barker.
“There’s a lot of surrounding here—a lot of faming, a lot of vineyards, and the Sterling Ranges and Bluff Noll and all of that are really close to here.
“And the coastline down here is really wild, it’s really quite rocky and people come down to view that.”
The weather in southern Western Australia is also conducive to the successful business, with Christine saying it’s similar to Melbourne.
“That’s why a bakery works really well—you know, colder weather.”
As well as a variety of breads they make a lot of pastries and slices, maintaining the traditional Aussie country bakery fare.
“Our bakery is quite old-fashioned in its own way.
“You know, we have the jam and cream doughnuts and the vanilla slice and all of the quite old-fashioned country-ish products. Too different a thing doesn’t sell as well.”
But what the Mt Barker Country Bakery is really famous for is its pies. Christine and Mick have had their fair share of success in the Great Aussie Pie Competition, which Christine says has increased sales.
“We did actually win it outright one year, in 2014, and that was a really huge year for us in business—it really boosted our business,” she says.
“We did advertise it, and let the public know that we’d won this big competition, so it did increase business, but we’ve just stayed up at that level the whole way through, ever since then.
Pies are their most popular product, but out of their pie range, it’s the classics that rule the sales.
“It’s always going to be your mince beef, and then your chunky beef.
“We have something like 27 varieties, and they’re all made from scratch recipes, they’re all made properly, not from containers or anything.
“Very much what the competitions are is what we present in the shop as well, so you know, people come back for good food.”
The 2020 Great Aussie Pie Competition will be held at Fine Food Australia in September, and Mick, Christine, and their staff are already working on their game, getting inspiration from the meals they eat out.
“We’ll go out to restaurants and we’ll all eat something and go, ‘oh wow, that tasted really good’ and we’ll try to create that, or we’ll find a recipe for that and try and put it into a pie,” Christine says.
“You can get set in your ways, but our life is the bakery, and when we go anywhere we eat out, and that’s where we get our ideas.
“That’s our life really. It’s a very hectic life, with a husband and business that starts at 2am.
“We’ve been experimenting on a satay chicken, which is really yummy, but we’ve got to get that into a pie and have it not be too sweet, because your peanuts are always going to be sweet.”
Speaking of sweet, I asked Christine whether they have started selling hot cross buns yet, and she answers with an emphatic, “noooooo”, explaining Mick likely won’t start making them until after Valentine’s Day – when it comes to seasonal products, they stick with the season.
“We’ve just gotten rid of all the Christmas stock, so we go, ‘right, what else do we do?’
“We do things like banana loaf—we sell big wedges of that—and all of the seasonal, different things.”
The community is traditional in its tastes too, with the majority still preferring fruit hot cross buns to other popular flavours, such as chocolate.
“We do a chocolate one, but we probably do maybe a fifth chocolate, and the rest are all traditional.
“Too different a thing doesn’t sell as well.”