With a career that’s spanned seven decades, it’s fair to say Bill Fuller from Mentone Bakery knows a thing or two when it comes to baking – and has the accolades to prove it.
It’s 1949. World War II has recently drawn to a close and life is starting to return to normal once again. But for 14-year-old Bill Fuller life was about to dramatically change once again, when an innocuous comment from a neighbor would send him headfirst into a career that has spanned 70 years.
Since that time, Bill has relocated states, opened his own business with his late-wife Betty, expanded his baking skillset to include not only breads but also cakes, sandwiches and pastries as demand for the products increased, and last but not least, made a name for himself as a stellar pie maker – with a swag of Great Aussie Pie Competition medals to back it up.
Keeping ahead of an ever-changing industry has been a rewarding challenge, and one that Bill says constantly keeps him on his toes.
“I was still at school when the barber in our town said to Dad the bakery at Hastings was looking for a boy and he thought it’d suit me. So the next thing I knew I was riding my bike six miles each way to start work,” Bill says about his start in the industry.
“I loved it at Hastings. It was like a fishing village in those days and I blended in with the locals and used to do a bit of fishing too.”
However, shortly after starting his baking career, Bill’s father was granted a war service home at Edithvale, Victoria. As a result the family relocated states but teenaged Bill was gutted about the move. Thankfully, a letter of reference to a baker at Parkdale set Bill’s feet back on the path to becoming a baker in his own right.
“I stayed at that bakery until one of the big bakeries took it over. Then I opened my own place,” Bill says.
The days were long and saw Bill starting his workday at 4pm and working throughout the night. Yet the knowledge he gained while putting in the hard yards has proved to be indispensable.
“When I first started, before all this Mickey Mouse machinery was around, we used to have to start our work day at 4pm and then work throughout the night because you’d have to have the carts and cars packed and ready for home delivery early in the morning,” Bill says.
“It was an anti-social lifestyle and in my single days it used to be quite disappointing because you’d be with a lady and she’d suggest going to the movies and you’d say ‘well I’ve got to go to work at 4pm’. It’d normally be bye-bye after that.”
These days the workdays are a little shorter, but Bill is still up by 2am to start stocking the shelves for the day at Mentone Bakery, which he opened in 1958 with his wife Betty.
Describing the original premises as more or less a deserted factory with a little two-bedroom weatherboard house in front of it, a little elbow grease and a lot of hard work over the years helped the family business to become a staple in the south-eastern Melbourne suburb.
“There used to be standalone cake shops and big pie manufacturers, so at the bakery we just did bread. Then when sliced bread came in we began slicing, and started home delivery too. That’s just what we did. But when the big supermarkets started to cut into our business we got into what was called illegal bread. You weren’t allowed to bake or deliver bread after 4pm on a Friday and the unions were pretty strong in those days,” Bill says.
“But then we saw the cake shops and pies shops closing down. Betty sat me down and said ‘we’ve got to stay in business and we’ve got to diversify’, so we started to make pies, cakes and coffee.”
Tackling a new and unknown product range was always going to be a challenge, but it was one that Bill faced head on and not only thrived at but also enjoyed doing.
“It was a bit difficult at the start. You had to learn to cook the meat and you had to make the pastry, which used to belong to cake shops. But we made sure we didn’t cheat; we’d only use the freshest ingredients – meat from the local butcher and all good pastry – and no additives or preservatives,” Bill says.
Another helping hand along the way was the Great Aussie Pie Competition, which Bill says he has regularly entered throughout the years. The feedback he received from each competition was then incorporated into Mentone Bakery’s pie-making technique. It should come as no surprise that Mentone Bakery’s pies are among its bestselling products, thanks to this dedication to quality.
“I’ve won gold and silver medals at the Great Aussie Pie Competition and it always makes trade at the store pick up a lot,” Bill says.
In recent years Bill has also created and entered a road kill meat pie into the competition, made with toad and roadkill cooked with garlic, onion, spices and tomato, worcestershire and soy sauces as well as “roadkill stock” and puff pastry. However, it’s not something you’ll find standing alongside the loaves of bread at Mentone Bakery.
Rather, Bill admits it’s a tongue-in-cheek joke pie, but one that has garnered quite a few good laughs throughout the years.
“It’s hard to keep a straight face when talking about it to people because you’re taking the mickey out of them. It’s just, shall we say, a standing joke in the industry,” Bill laughs.
“It’s a bit of a laugh and helps you through the days at times. There are the odd people actually doing it, but I couldn’t regularly do it.”
When asked about what the new year holds for him, Bill turns thoughtful.
“It’s important to keep on learning,” Bill says.
“I’m in my 83rd year and I’m still learning.”