Future looking brighter for struggling local bakery

Although still unwilling to say that things are back on track, Firebrand Sourdough baker Lilly Brown says that business is improving.

Baker Lilly Brown says that the future is looking positive for the Firebrand Sourdough Bakery.

A quaint and quiet bakery sits silently on Glen Eira Road, advertised by a simple sign promising authentic sourdough bread baked in a 1930s wood-fired oven. Walking into the shop on a Thursday night, I was greeted by a cheery yet tired looking young woman wiping the counter in preparation for the end of a long day.

Although the shelves had been emptied of baked goods, Lilly Brown attended the bakery with the vigour of a woman determined to make her business thrive despite the harsh financial realities her bakery faces. Owned by her parents, Brown has worked at the Firebrand Sourdough Bakery for the last five years, managing the business for the last twelve months despite studying her third year of a psychology degree at RMIT.

“It can be really difficult working in a business that’s struggling,” intimates Brown whilst nursing a headache she’s had all day.

“I think it sort of brings us together in a way, but it’s hard for everyone to be happy all the time at work and be their most productive when everyone’s stressed.”

Opened in 1987 by Brown’s parents, the Firebrand Sourdough Bakery was the first bakery to specialise in authentically baked sourdough bread in Melbourne. Business had remained strong due to the support of the Glen Eira community until the Global Financial Crisis which struck hard at businesses across the world in 2007.

Brown admits that things have been particularly difficult in the last 3 years when the price of flour tripled. In order to make a reasonable profit, the bakery was forced to raise prices, pushing away customers looking to minimise spending in the unstable economic environment.

“We were going to close at the end of last year,” said Brown when asked about how bad things had gotten for the business.

Firebrand Sourdough Bakery Soundslide from Jarryd Redwood on Vimeo.

Determined to keep the business her parents had built alive, Brown set to out to change business practices to bring more customers to the bakery.

“This has been like my parent’s life for the last 25 or so years, and they’re so passionate about it too, so I really wanted to keep it going for them,” she said.

“[Customers] wanted bread at an earlier time, not at 1.30 in the afternoon, so in the last month, we’ve changed that too so we’ve got bread coming out at 9 and that’s made a huge difference.”

Brown then contacted her local newspaper, The Leader, who wrote a story on the struggling bakery. Although admitting to the press that business is going poorly may seem counterproductive, Brown was surprised to find that the article gathered the community in support of the business.

“Almost every customer that comes in says ‘Oh, I read the article, about how you guys are struggling, about how you put prices down.’”

Like many other businesses in the area, the Firebrand Sourdough Bakery is still reeling from the Global Financial Crisis. Last month Treasurer Wayne Swan lauded the IMF’s prediction that the Australian economy will outpace other advanced national economies in the new financial year, stating in an article on the Labor Party website that “the Australian economy is the standout performer of the developed world”.

But the immense positivity of Mr. Swan’s article has frustrated local business owners who are still working hard to keep afloat. Whilst many admit that things have been getting better in the last few months, few were willing to say that business was back to normal.

Overview Of Glen Eira Local Economy from Jarryd Redwood on Vimeo.

Restaurant owner Vanida Sinbandhit is one such business owner. After taking over management from her ill parents, Sinbandhit has worked hard to bring business back to her restaurant, Bai-Yok Thai.

“A lot of people are watching what they’re spending, so [people are wondering] whether eating out is a necessity these days. Business has dropped in that sense,” she said.

Bala Prashad, whose family has owned the Bala Da Dhaba Indian Restaurant since 1996, also admits that things have improved but are certainly not back to normal.

“[Things] are not back on track, but it’s been better,” he said.

As for the Firebrand Sourdough Bakery, despite a large improvement in business in the last few months, Brown is still waiting to see what happens next.

“[It’s] too early to tell, in my opinion. I think we’ll know if we’re more on track later in the year. But, it’s positive, I think.”

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