Chirico’s: Organic Touch

Daniel Chirico’s organic and community-oriented bread-making techniques triumphantly emerge from the minimalist design of his new north Melbourne store.

Like the interweaving fronds of a breadbasket, a light-brown timber structure curves its way across one wall of Baker D Chirico’s new Carlton store. On the other side of the narrow retail space, a flat concrete wall with dappled paint contrasts against the organic warmth, an angled chess piece floor dividing the two. Curious to the eye, the store has become a room-sized container for the soul of the business, its high-quality apple-fermented organic sourdough. With no coffee machine in sight, a limited range of breads on the wavy shelf space and only a few pastries on the counter, the minimalist offering strips back the concept of the local bread bakery to its very core.

It has been a decade since owner Daniel Chirico opened his first bakery in St Kilda. Expanding to the second store in Melbourne’s northern suburbs to broaden his market, the one-time graphic designer is attracted to confined spaces, as if the enclosed room itself nurtures his eight-hour fermentation. The new architect-designed retail space is an opportunity for the 38-year-old to hone in on what it means to be a modern baker, paring the role down to its raw communal element.

“The store in Carlton is about celebrating good architecture and good design, something which I like personally and incorporate into my brand. I think my brand works well with that idea,” Daniel told Australian Baking Business.

For some customers, the concept of an in-and-out boutique bakery can be bewildering. While the breadbasket design sparks plenty of conversation, Daniel hates for interest in his bread to be lost and forgotten in the process.

“People walk in and go, ‘There’s no coffee machine here, it’s pure retail?” he says.

“It’s about being a bakery. We do a small selection of pastry, which is half a counter, but there’s no café, there’s no food offering, there’s nowhere to sit down, which people have become accustomed to. I wanted to change that idea for a baker. I wanted to go back to the idea of, ‘Hang on, you can just be a really good bakery’.”

Tapping into both a new market and a raw form of bakery design has been an education for both the owner and his customers. Daniel will often need to answer questions from those curious about the limited bread range.

“You might have two varieties of bread and people ask, ‘Where is all the bread? What time do you start here?’ Because they think you only just got in or something. And I go ‘No, no, I’ve already been here eight hours, it’s just the process’. So they are intrigued. So you tell them, educate them and I guess if the product stands up, well, then they appreciate it,” he says.

Along with croissants and nougat, the bakery has stuck to its signature apple-fermented sourdough and rye lines, using flour from Wholegrain Milling Company to enrich the levain. Equipment from Vanrooy Machinery powers production with Salva ovens, Escher spiral mixer, Tekno Stamap planetary mixer and sheeter, and Stoppil water meter and chiller. While a limited product range and service offering may not seem financially rewarding, Daniel believes it was the right time in his business growth cycle to take a philosophical gamble.

“This is a bit of a new page for us, it’s something that I set out to do. As a young guy with no money, you compromise ideas a little bit to start off. I’m not saying that I have lots of money now, but I’m just in the position where if I don’t do this idea now, when am I going to do it?” Daniel asks.

A solid bakery team at his St Kilda store allows him to spend time working on the new business. Daniel praised his St Kilda head baker Dave Nancarrow for the way he manages the night production.

“He’s a pretty solid baker. With bakers, you kind of just need that one person that’s reliable and knows what’s going on to run a small team and, he’s definitely doing that really well,” Daniel says.

While not against high-volume bread making, Daniel believes large manufacturers still need to have the right philosophy behind them. He plans to make more bread down the track, but the quality of the product must always come first.

“I’m not opposed to making a lot of bread, I think there’s a good number of companies in the world that can do it really well and have a lot of integrity. I believe that if you are fully dedicated it is achievable,” he says.

“We plan to kind of make some more bread somewhere down the future. We need to make a bit more bread, we are a business. But the good thing about retail baking is that they do have limits and you need to work within them. If you leave them. Something is going to be sacrificed and usually its always the quality of the product.”

With such a sophisticated market to cater for, Daniel has diversified his wholesale customers as much as possible. Forty per cent of his St Kilda production is wholesale, with around a quarter of that going to restaurants.

“Restaurants are really, really good. They’re quite loyal. They have a fairly good idea of what good bread is and if it doesn’t show up, they’ll let you know about it. That challenge of making for chefs, the establishment, is a challenge for bakers. I think if it was all about that it might be a little too much. So it’s nice to mix that wholesale world up a little bit,” he says.

While many bakers would consider Daniel’s business and product philosophy outlandish, extreme or perhaps too ‘Melbourne’, the baker can see many connections between himself and the mainstream industry.

“The intent of the small business person, whether it’s a family business or not, is very similar. I think they are very similar in idea and execution. I think we are all wanting the same thing, and we are all quite proud, you know? But product is a very personal thing,” he says.

“A lot of (bakers) in that world are unaware, they just don’t know how to get to that point. The ones that I’ve spoken to that have expressed some interest [in my product], you tell them the process and they are like, ‘That’s too much [work]’.

“So it’s that level, there is that line where they go, ‘I love making bread but that’s going to consume my whole life and maybe I don’t want to go that far’.”

For Daniel, Baker D Chirico’s success indicates that without an excellent product, you don’t have a business. He has never swayed from the idea and dedication required to make and maintain really good quality product.

“I think to maintain the level is always the harder challenge, especially over 10 years,” he says.

“To stay at that level in this space that we’ve been baking, they’re really small spaces. St Kilda does make a lot of bread for its space and every day managing and making sure the quality of the product is very important. The brand highly suggests that we are about good product more so than anything else, I think.”

With more time and space on his hand, Daniel would love to unpack the pieces of a Spanish open carousel wood-fired oven he salvaged from a closed business and make it commercially viable.

“I love baking with wood, I think its beautiful, you know. To run a full commercial production on it today is somewhat not practical,” he says.

“Building that again for a commercial purpose, I’ve kind of had the idea that if we went to a factory, I would build it and just have an element of just one or two styles of bread coming out of it.”

Building a bigger space would allow him to provide more flexible shifts and make use of more technologies such as retarder provers, but he would never do so at the expense of his product.

“If we went to a bigger place, I think 100 per cent it would alleviate the cruelty of everybody working night. It works for some people that have that nocturnal existence, but for others it doesn’t. I guess there is that whole romantic notion of night for bakers and that specialty, but that’s fading out. [Younger] generations and people don’t understand it.”

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