A lot of bakers were disappointed for the second year running when the Great Vanilla Slice Triumph Merbein was cancelled as a result of the pandemic, but none more so than Kevin Sharp, who has his sights set on a fifth win to make his famous slice the reigning champion.
As it stands, Sharp’s Bakery, Birchip, has four Triumph wins under its belt, making it neck and neck with Bayswater Cake Kitchen. Widely considered to be Australia’s best vanilla slice, people come from far and wide to sample it. And given the Mallee town isn’t really a stop on the way to anywhere, it’s clear they’re all there for Sharp’s.
It wasn’t an easy ride to perfect the slice though. In fact, Kevin says it took 10 years of entering to even run third in the competition.
“It took a long time to develop what we were with feedback from the judges,” he says.
“I think, going back, the vanilla slice we entered at the start that we thought was pretty good—you’d throw it in the bin now!
“But the competition has been absolutely unbelievable for us. We used to make vanilla slice on a Friday and make 2500 a year. Now, we start off with 100 every morning and see how it’s going. In a town of 700 people!”
The Sharp’s Bakery story is the perfect demonstration of the very real impact competitions like the Great Vanilla Slice Triumph can have on a small business. In fact, before that third-place run, Kevin says he and his wife, Gail, were “just keeping their heads above water”.
“We ran third in the vanilla slice and I was getting a front window sign written and a rep came through,” he says.
“He said, ‘Kevin, whatever you do, don’t tell them you’re a third place Charlie. Tell them you’re an award winner!’ so I did that.
“But just by running third, the caravans started to come. That’s what we’re missing at the moment with lockdown.”
If a third-place prize and some clever marketing was enough to get the caravans heading towards Birchip, nothing could have prepared Kevin for what happened when they finally won the competition in 2009.
“When we won—Ouyen used to have it on the Friday—I was going home from work on the Saturday morning (we live out the road)— and whoosh; a caravan! And another. All caravans,” Kevin says.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘It can’t be!’ so I went back and here they all are pulled up across the other side of the street going to the shop.”
The judges told Kevin that it was the highest scoring slice in five years, but it would be another three years before they won it again in 2012 (then 2014 and 2016).
“It’s amazing… we couldn’t get near them because everyone was doing the same thing,” he says.
“Bayswater Cake Kitchen in Bayswater was dominating. There was a bloke here in a semitrailer going through Bayswater so I got him to stop and buy me two vanilla slices and bring them home so we could dissect them.
“Now, everyone does the same thing.
“Pat O’Toole at Bridgewater has won the last two. He’s taken it to another level and so we’ve tweaked ours a little bit and reckon we can knock him off, but we can’t get a chance to do it!”
Kevin and Gail bought the business—an established bakery that first opened in 1928—as 23-year-olds in 1975 and have been going strong for 44 years.
Now, their son, Ashley, and daughter-in-law, Tara, have taken over the business, keeping it in the Sharp family. Gail has now retired, but Kevin still works there, and marvels at how the bakery business has changed since he first started—especially when it comes to coffee.
“When Gail and I arrived, you made bread and pies; that was about it,” Kevin says.
“You went next door to buy a drink—there was no coffee or anything like that. The advent of the bakery-café has been sensational, really.
“Gail said to me, ‘We’ve got to buy a coffee machine’, and I said, ‘Oh gee, how much is that going to cost me?’ and she said ‘$6000’!”
Kevin was a bit aghast at the hefty price tag, but was amazed when the bakery took $60,000 in coffee in the first year, well and truly paying for itself and proving Gail right.
“That’s going back a bit,” Kevin says.
“That’s been the massive change, but one other big change—and it sort of bugs me a bit—when I started here and when I was a kid on my apprenticeship, you won your trade on the quality of your product.
“And you still do to an extent, but there’s a lot of the trade won on price. There was none of that then.
“We’re lucky we haven’t got [the big supermarkets] but a lot of that trade is won by price, whereas before, the guy who was making the most bread had the best product.
The Sharps have seen some tough years in the tiny, regional town that is known for (aside from incredible vanilla slice) Big Red, the Mallee Bull whose statue stands proud on the main street, just adjacent from the bakery.
“We had 10 or 12 dry years—we lost the water out of our lake and things just didn’t look really good,” Kevin says.
“It’s just sort of turned around; we’ve got water back in the lake and a lot of young people have come back to our town—people that left.
“Have you heard of the television show ‘Backroads’ on the ABC? They did a show here in Birchip, simply off the bat of the vanilla slice, and we haven’t got an empty shop in our town.
“It’s amazing—you can’t get a house! It’s amazing how it has changed in the last eight or 10 years or so. It’s been fantastic.”
Even more amazing is how they’ve pushed through the COVID-19 pandemic, which Kevin says concerned them in the beginning.
“We thought we were in a bit of trouble,” he says.
“But I tell you what, JobKeeper was an absolute lifesaver for us.
“No one lost their job here, which I was absolutely rapt with. We’ve only got 700 people in our town, but the bakery actually employs 18—that blows people away.
“But we’re bobbing along alright now, it’s not too bad, and there’s a few caravans about.”
In fact, at the time of speaking, Kevin is excited about some renovations underway at the bakery to double the outdoor dining space.
“They’re about to pour the cement out the front, which is really exciting,” he says.
“It’s going to be great. I’m a bit keen on even getting a bloke out there with a guitar ever now and then—a bit of music, say on a Friday or something like that. The young ones are great; they’d support it.”
In fact, the young residents of Birchip have been nagging Kevin for another kind of upgrade, he laughs.
“The young ones have said to me, ‘Come one Sharpy, get a liquor licence!”