Alice Springs is known for many culinary treasures but, until not that long ago, breads and pastries weren’t among them. This is the story of two mates who, in search of some good sourdough, decided enough was enough and set to work on their own artisan baking business.
Before long-time friends Neil Rilatt and Caleb Evans put their heads together, the only places to buy bread were the local Coles and a couple of franchises. Sure, there were a few home bakers, but commercially, bread and pastries made the real way simply weren’t around.
After years of hard work and lot of community support, The Bakery Alice Springs was born in September 2014. Today, the team sells a range of sourdoughs, baguettes, gourmet pies, sausage rolls and French pastries.
What makes this story particularly impressive is neither Neil nor Caleb – nor their partners Mel Darr and Cass Howden – had any formal training in baking. Relying on books and YouTube tutorials, Caleb says it took two-and-a-half years of trial and error before they took their goods to market.
Their journey into business may have been unconventional, but it was certainly successful.
“The first day we opened we were sold out before 11am. On the second day we were sold out in 45 minutes,” Caleb says.
“We baked for 12 hours straight, went home, got changed and went back to the markets where our partners were setting up. There was a 50m line of customers and, we said to each other, ‘this can’t possibly be for us’, but it was!”
This carried on for months. Every week the pair would go back to work, doubling production and introducing new recipes. Still, the crowds came.
To this day, The Bakery Alice Springs sells out every time it sets up shop.
“We didn’t get paid for the first three months and we were doing 80-90-hour weeks. I remember one day I worked for 27 hours, left the bakery, slept for four hours and then went back and did it all again. It was insane,” Caleb says.
With no fixed retail space, the goods are spread around the Alice throughout the week. Every second Sunday, the bakery holds a stall at the Todd Mall Markets, selling breads and the brand’s famous jam doughnuts. Delivered directly from what Caleb terms “the bakery HQ”, the product is sold fresh and warm – just how it should be.
The team also pops-up at The Residency each Wednesday and Friday morning, and at the local community radio station every Saturday morning.
“The business expanded in a really organic way. Word spread throughout town and, as we got more time and more energy to try different things, we expanded the operation,” Caleb says.
“We’ve also picked up more equipment as we’ve gone along, which has really helped speed up production. When we started, we just had an oven and a mixer, so everything was done by hand, the hard way.
“Now we have some dividers, a bigger mixer and a second oven, and we can run a pretty tight ship.”
On any given day, Caleb and the gang will bake a plain sourdough and a multigrain, along with a specialty sourdough. One day a week, they’ll try out a flavoured sourdough or a fruit sourdough, such as date and walnut, or roasted garlic with parmesan. Ingredients are often based on the season, meaning there are a lot of pear and fennel sourdoughs, and oatmeal and stout sourdoughs being baked at the moment. In production for 18 hours, the flavours are well-developed, and the bread is noticeably sour.
Along with a range of white breads, including the popular rosemary sea salt ciabatta, the team pump out a series of pastries every week. Doughnuts and pain au chocolat are staples, but the rest of the menu really depends on whatever the guys feel like making.
“We are really lucky we have a close relationship with our customers, so we know what they are into. For example, cruffins are still massively popular, and we can’t keep up with demand for the pies – literally, we can’t make enough to not sell out,” Caleb says.
“Having said that, we do have to think about the logistics of the pies in a pop-up. We transport them hot, which means we have to put up and pull down a pie warmer every day. But we do this because we want them to be baked fresh. We would never serve frozen pies.”
It’s this commitment to quality artisan bread – a refusal to cut corners – that gives the brand so much integrity. After all, this was why the boys quit their day jobs and took up baking in the first place.
“When we started, everyone from the bigger cities kept saying, ‘you can’t survive without a home base, without a bricks-and-mortar shop where people can go and get their bread’,” Caleb says.
“But they couldn’t be more wrong. We bake what we love, the way we love, and demand couldn’t be stronger. There’s a different way to do business out in the Alice; it’s all about pushing boundaries and cementing yourself in the local community and being by the people, for the people.”
When you look at it like that, Alice Springs sounds like a pretty good place to be.