The Man, the Loaf, the Legend
The Man, the Loaf, the Legend
Dom: Bread has been responsible for my happiness (at least in part) since I was nine years old, when I used to come home from school to the smell of a freshly baked loaf cooling on the kitchen counter. The crust was my favourite - add a little butter and some homemade plum jam, and I was in a world of baked goodness.
Court: I read a piece of poetry once about bread, it went a little something like this: "the yeast exploding, the 'holes' of infinity, the chemical REAL structure of the joyousness and complexity of BREAD..." That summed up pretty much perfectly how I feel about the stuff. All meals should come with bread. I like it more than meat. I like it more than broccoli. I like it almost as much as I like dessert.
Yes. It is a special thing for many of us, bread. So being offered the opportunity to meet Sean Armstrong, founder of NZ's own artisan bread empire, Loaf, was quite an exciting moment for both of us. What was even better? We were to be taken on a tour of the commercial bakery itself, the place where the bread comes to life in all its golden, freshly baked goodness. We'd both long been fans of the Loaf country sourdough and the seeded batard, and Dom can still remember the day that perfect lemon loaf entered her life, and now we were to hear the story of how and where it all began, and we felt certain it would prove a good yarn.
In 2004, Sean Armstrong turned to his wife and said ‘let’s start a bakery.’
"Here are the numbers," he continued, and produced an impressive sheaf of papers containing numbers on it. His wife is an accountant. She looked at those numbers and said, "oh okay then."
That was the beginning. Eight years later, we find ourselves in Ellerslie being shown around this entity now known as Loaf; this business that was born under a decade a go with one simple sentence. It's quite amazing really, what happens when thoughts turn into words and then into things. Things like shining stainless steel. Blue hair nets. Towers of pastry and proving loaves. A room filled with ovens. Another reserved purely for cooling and packaging.
Back in 2004, Sean was the owner and chef at Prime in the PWC tower, and nobody was making the products he needed. By that I mean, no one was making them quite right, quite in the way that he would have made them - and no one was providing the service experience he was after either. So he decided to do it himself, from scratch.
This idea of making everything from scratch seems to be a running theme in the life of Sean Armstrong. He likes to do everything himself. He strikes us as the type of man who would spend hours perfecting an almost-perfect recipe - just to prove something to himself.
Sean converted part of his kitchen at Prime into a bakery. He cooked during the day and baked for Loaf after hours. He survived on three hours’ sleep a night for the first year. Today, Loaf is one of the country’s best-loved artisan bakery brands, and if you’ve tried any of their products, it’s not hard to see why.
We walked into Sean's office and took a seat beside two boxes of golden brown fruit cakes and four trays of miniature mince tarts. It's the Christmas range, and it's in Sean's office for testing. Which means tasting, which has got to be one of the main perks. What are the less exciting things about his job? He doesn't get to cook much anymore, now he spends most of his time in front of a screen, making things work. He looks forward to doing demos with his retailers because it gives him the opportunity to get creative with his products again. This weekend, for example, he's doing a slider demo with Al Brown at Farro Fresh in Lunn Avenue. He's making some kind of delicious slider for kids - and his eyes lit up a little like a kid when he was talking about it.
"Did you ever worry it wouldn't work? That you'd fail?" We wanted to know.
"Yep, probably about four or five times a week for the first two years of business."
Phew. That's a relief to hear. Sean's an incredibly enigmatic guy, and he's also pretty straight-up and honest. Here's a cliche for you; with Sean Armstrong, what you see is what you get. Listening to him describe his vision for the brand and the things that are most important to him, it’s no surprise that he’s built Loaf into the powerhouse brand it currently is. From the outset, the goal was to create a product that was indulgent but everyday, something that was top quality but still approachable.
With his background in hospitality, Sean knew about the importance of exceptional service. He didn't want Loaf simply to offer great products, he wanted people to have a complete experience, which is why Loaf is the only bread company in NZ with a 24hr phone number. He operates his medium-sized company like a small business. If there's a problem, someone will deal with it immediately, and that someone is often Sean himself. He'd be the first person to admit that they are far from perfect, but they are open to criticism and quick to improve.
But let’s get to the good stuff, the stuff that’s browning in the ovens and making the whole bakery smell like heaven. Where did the recipes come from? And why do we want to try every one of Loaf’s products so badly? Sean figured out what people wanted and started making everything himself. There is literally a Loaf product for every taste. Twenty-seven types of handcrafted breads, thirty-three types of small breads, seven sweet loaves (triple ginger and perfect lemon are particularly noteworthy), eight different slices, eight types of Danish pastry, eight kinds of muffins, three flavours of scone, doughnuts, and Chelsea buns – all baked fresh every single day at the purpose-built bakery in Ellerslie.
We strolled through the bakery and saw tiers of ciabatta proving on the racks (just like the ones on masterchef), and then we saw the ovens that stretched at least two metres deep and were filled with that same ciabatta rising and turning gold before our very eyes. We learned the temperature at the back of the oven is exactly the same as it is at the front (a feat most small ovens aren't even capable of achieving).
There's a cooling room and a packing room, and then there's a pastry room - which was kind of like our equivalent of Wonka's chocolate factory. All that pastry everywhere!
"How are your pastry chefs all not as big as houses?" We couldn't help but ask.
Well, apparently you get over it, after a while, and you simply crave other foods. We really can't imagine a world in which that would happen to us, but we're open to the idea of letting that happen...
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