With a loyal customer base and a bigger, better, brand new space, Dobinsons Bakery and Café is the definitive Australian bakery. Australian Baking Business catches up with the owner of Canberra’s breakfast institution to hear about making products that are as inexpensive as they are delicious.
Ever since Dobinsons opened its doors at the Canberra Centre 20 years ago, its reputation has been built on serving high-quality food at low prices. It must be working because the lunch queues at Dobinsons are legendary. Starting on Wednesdays, customer numbers start to build at the Canberra bakery before they crescendo over the weekend and ebb away again on Monday.
“It’s lunchtime, breakfast time, all the time,” owner Sue Dobinson says.
“We’re just packed all day from Friday through to Sunday.”
Not surprisingly, the bakery is now something of a Canberra institution, with day-trippers and visitors filling social networking websites with tantalising pictures of their custard tarts, pastries, breakfast rolls and burgers.
“We’ve certainly stamped our mark on the bakery, café and convenience food market here,” Sue says.
“We have a large selection of food, however we are neither a restaurant nor a café. We’re still very much a bakery and, as a result, we are very clear on our position in the market.”
dobinsons’ strong foothold in the market is defined as much by its history as it is by its reputation for high-quality and low price. the first dobinson’s bakery opened in the 1890s in Kyogle, a small lumber town west of Byron Bay in New South Wales. By the time the First World War was being fought, the bakery had moved to Rose Bay in Sydney, where it stayed until the 1960s. a shop front reading “dobinson’s est. 1896” remained in place until 2011.
as a fourth-generation australian pastry chef, Sue says she is proud to produce distinctively australian baked goods at dobinsons. this means cooking everything from scratch.
“I’ve never tasted a pre-mix I liked,” she says and, as a result, has adapted established recipes and flavours to create what she thinks are australian-preferred bakery products.
“Naturally we draw our influences from a range places, but we’re definitely not trying to be a european patisserie,” she says. Nor is she trying to attract the health-conscious.
“We only sell indulgence food. We don’t do healthy. We’re a bakery and proud of it!”
dobinson’s is also proudly australian and Sue’s unmistakable enthusiasm for all things local is realised through the bakery’s selection of milkshakes and comfort food, bacon and eggs. and like all good aussie bakeries, dobinson’s is also home to an enviable selection of pies. Plain beef pies cost $3.70. anything fancier, such as beef and bacon, beef and mushroom, or Mexican beef costs $4.10.
Sweet pastries, including danishes, have also been adapted for the australian palate and are fruit-filled or fruit-topped and finished with jam glaze and fondants. there are also custard tarts; chocolate tarts; fruit tarts and spinach and feta triangles, along with a wide range of breads.
“everybody has their particular favourite. Some people just come in and get an egg and bacon roll, other people religiously come once or twice a week and get a big breakfast. then, there are others who come in every other day for their bread. We just try to be very consistent,” Sue says.
For Sue, consistency means focussing on her own bakery, rather than worrying about what other owner-operators are doing and for what price. By looking inwards, the bakery has been able to focus on the quality of its food and has used the tastes and preferences of its customers to guide its range. this approach has encouraged customers to be loyal, with some eating at the bakery for decades.
“Certainly we’ve developed a very, very solid customer base. I’ve watched a lot of families grow. there are a lot of customers I’ve had conversations with for 20 years now. It feels strange to say that, but it has been a very long time!” Sue says.
“Nonetheless, tastes and trends change and I’ve always tried to evolve with them to a certain extent.”
Over the years, this has meant adding new items to the savoury menu. Before coming to Canberra, for example, Sue had never sold a quiche. She also had to adapt the appearance of sweet pastries, which have become progressively more decorative and fruity.
Where possible, Sue says she tries to make price-point driven food that customers can’t buy anywhere else. as a result, the bakery also has a strong emphasis on making products that are as distinctive and inexpensive as they are delicious.
the success of this formula could be measured in square metres: at the beginning of the year, dobinsons was extensively refurbished and expanded from 110sq m to 190sq m. the new space was needed both to accommodate more customers and to give the kitchen more space for baking and food preparation. the refurbishment also presented Sue with the opportunity to overhaul the bakery’s interior, but she says her priority was to keep it consistent with its established identity.
“It’s very obvious from the food we sell, the service we give and our fit out that we’re not exclusive,” she says.
“everybody feels comfortable to walk in the door. they don’t feel like they’re underdressed or overdressed, or that they need to do their hair and makeup to come in. When I did the refit, one of my main briefs to the architect was that it retains that feel of non-exclusivity. It has to be a very welcoming environment for absolutely everybody.”
In the months since reopening, there have been wrinkles to iron out.
“We have a new kitchen and nothing’s second nature anymore. everything’s in different spots,” she says.
Nonetheless, the proof is in the pudding – customers have returned in bigger numbers than the bakery has ever seen before. While this poses challenges, Sue is quick to point out it also delivers rewards.
“I enjoy being out and about at breakfast and lunch and walking through the tables to deliver coffee and meals to tables,” Sue says.
“Conversation is always flowing at almost every table and you hear a lot of laughter, which tells me people are happy here.
“Nobody should ever feel like they have to watch themselves when they’re sitting at a bakery. When renovating the store, my aim was always to create a space where people are comfortable and relaxed. We’ve achieved this and this is success in my book.”