If you could only use one word to describe Rob Pirina, it would be ‘energetic’. For someone who only has the same number of hours in each day as the rest of us, he sure packs a lot in—so much that when he takes a moment to reflect, what he’s achieved blows his own mind. I caught up with Rob following the Australian Small Business Champion Awards—where he picked up both the Best Bakery/Cake Store for Glenorie Bakery AND the Champion Entrepreneur awards—and quickly learned that these honours were just the tip of the iceberg for this energiser bunny!
He didn’t know it at the time, but the seed for Rob’s career in baking was planted back in 1992 when his father opened a small bakery in the rural Sydney suburb of Glenorie.
Rob admits he “never really did too well at school”, and was later diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“I was always looking out the window trying to get out so I could get my hands dirty,” he says.
And get his hands dirty he did, actually going into the landscaping and horticulture business before his father invited him to take over the family business 18 years ago. Since then, Rob has utilised his energy and passion to grow the once-little Glenorie Bakery into what it is today.
This wasn’t any easy feat though. Given the remote location of Glenorie, Rob had to get creative to increase traffic to the store, and admits he has pulled some “crazy” stunts over the years to put the bakery on the map, so to speak.
“We started off in 2007 baking Australia’s longest sausage roll. That was 21.7 metres long and we baked for charity—we raised $17,000,” Rob says.
This served as a starting point with Rob realising that using the bakery as a platform to raise awareness for charity had the bonus effect of getting the business noticed. It snowballed from there.
“We went on to start a competition called the Pie of Origin Challenge. It’s a State of Origin for meat pies where a Queensland bakery takes on us in NSW, and whoever bakes and sells the most pies and raises the most money for their individual charity wins the bragging rights,” Rob says.
“That started 11 years ago and we’ve raised quite a lot of money—all up, the Pie of Origin has raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars, which is huge when you think the humble meat pie has managed to do so much good in our community and in our states.”
However, it would be difficult to call Rob’s meat pies ‘humble’. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find many other pies that live up to the quality of those produced at Glenorie Bakery, given they employ an in-house butcher and buy their meat directly from the farmer.
“The in-house butcher came about probably about eight years ago when we kept getting inferior products from the butcher,” Rob explains.
“When you’re buying mince and chunk, you never actually really know what you’re getting. We started going directly to the farm and buying there, and all of a sudden, the quality of the pies was on the rise.
“We realised we’ve actually created something amazing where we can… maintain the level of quality required to give people the best product, all the time. We like to call it ‘paddock to pie’.”
If you think Pie of Origin and a 21.7 metre sausage roll are big, wait until you hear Rob’s next tale, which involves picking up the phone in the wee hours of the morning and calling Kensington Palace, offering to be the official bakers for Prince Harry’s 2018 Invictus Games in Sydney. So, how does one just phone Kensington Palace?
“I actually just picked up the phone and called them the first time. It was quite funny because you’ve got this English person answering the phone, then, ‘Hey it’s Rob, I’m from Glenorie Bakery in Sydney’,” he laughs.
“It took a couple of times because they thought I was actually joking with them, or ‘taking the piss’ as the pommies would say!”
But Rob was dead serious about baking for the Games and pursued it until he was, somewhat unbelievably, given the royal go-ahead.
“We got a letter from [the Palace] saying we’re allowed to bake for the Invictus Games. It was actually a really cool process, and looking back at it now I can’t believe what we did,” Rob says.
“We were the bakers of the Invictus Pie in honour of Princess Diana. We made a cottage pie—which was Prince Harry’s favourite—and we piped a white rose on top of it with mashed potato. Now, that pie raised $21,000 for Australian servicemen and women and we handed that over directly to Prince Harry’s foundation.”
Along with being the official Invictus Games bakers that year and getting an all-access pass to the events, Rob himself was bestowed the honour of receiving the English team on behalf of the then-Treasurer of New South Wales, Dominic Perrottet (now the Premier).
“I got to take them out and it was probably one of the most amazing nights, seeing the stories of all these people who have been injured in battle, then taking them out and being the representative from Australia on behalf of the Treasurer was just massive for me,” Rob says.
“I mean, I’m just a baker.”
Like everyone, the past two years haven’t exactly been easy for Rob and his crew. Enduring fires, two floods and two COVID-19 lockdowns took its toll and at one point during the second Sydney COVID lockdown, he admits he was ready to give up entirely and close the bakery’s doors.
“I was so depressed and upset, and given our location, when they did a 5km lockdown there was nobody—ever—in our shop,” he says.
“I was seriously second-guessing myself but a very close, dear friend of mine said, ‘Rob… it’s not all just about making the money. You’re more than a business here in Glenorie, you’re an institution. People come here to get away from their daily troubles… think about the people’s lives you’re changing just by remaining open’.
“I took that with two hands and said, ‘Stuff it, we’re staying open. I’ll reduce people’s hours but I’m not firing anyone, and we’re going to get through this.’ And that’s what we did.”
What Rob did during that lockdown was more than just getting through. Like many businesses, he pivoted, and pivoted hard, opening Glenorie Bakery’s sister store, Bobby Bakehouse. A 1950s concept store inside a 1950s school bus, Bobby Bakehouse has already had a great deal of success, including being a finalist in the Australian Design Awards.
“Our business there has seen two COVID lockdowns and two floods, [yet] it has been growing ever since we created it,” Rob says.
“During our second lockdown, which was our hardest lockdown ever, we actually opened another business within that business, called The Holy Dough Co—so we introduced a 1950s doughnut cart into the mix. That has just gone gangbusters.”
Given the people couldn’t come to the bakery during the strict lockdown, Rob and his crew hit the road to bring the bakery to the people. Packing the bakery into trucks, they spent 17 weeks driving around to various locations in Sydney.
“Penrith Panthers, Pennant Hills Sports Club, Baulkham Hills Bull n Bush—we went everywhere! It was massive,” he says.
“We literally took Mother’s Day by storm, dropping Mother’s Day boxes all over Sydney. Almost 1,000 mothers received boxes from our truck on Mother’s Day in the first lockdown.”
Right now, and hot off the back of his award wins, things haven’t slowed down and Rob has just opened a factory to help produce the high volumes of product required across the three businesses. He’s also keen to expand the Bobby Bakehouse brand.
“I’ve got some really cool ideas,” he says.
“For some reason I’m drawn to the 1950s, even though I was born in the ‘80s. But I want to continue that vibe. I think when people come and sit down in the pie bus, it takes them back to a time gone by, even if they weren’t from that time.”
He hasn’t put the brakes on his spirit of giving back either. In fact, at the time of speaking, Rob was preparing to put on an appreciation breakfast for the local emergency services workers who have been working hard helping flood victims in the area.
“They’re literally saving the lives of people in my area, and if I can give back a little bit and give them a little bit of happiness and smiles, it’s worth it,” he says.
Rob credits his wife and daughters as being his biggest supporters.
“My four little babies, although they drive me crazy, they’re my passion, they’re my life and they’re my number one driver,” he says.
“Now that I’m 38 years old, it’s all about my family and all about being there for them as much as possible.
“But, like all small business owners, you’re stuck in the business a lot of the time. It’s just a matter of trying to balance that.”