IN GOOD COMPANY: Sonoma's incredible journey from country baker to industry leader

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The Sonoma cafe at its Alexandria bakery headquarters

Some boys follow in their father’s trade, but few plan to end up being wildly successful by following a dad’s dream.

Andrew Connole’s career as one of Australia’s leading artisan bakers – his company, Sonoma, produces 40,000 loaves weekly – was born out of folly

His late father, Kerry, a truck driver, had childhood memories of fresh bread from a wood-fired bakery in Bellata, 570km northwest of Sydney. On a trip through the country town in 1998, he discovered an old bakery abandoned and derelict. He began to dream of restoring it to its former glory and enlisted his sons, Andrew and Christian, in his plan.

Sonoma artisan sourdough bakers founder Andrew Connole.

Baker wasn’t even on Andrew Connole’s list of career options and he’s described his father’s idea as “ridiculous”, but among the qualities he inherited from his father were love, loyalty, and determination to the point of stubbornness.

“My dad was intense and I inherited that intensity,” Connole said, although he admits to being a knockabout 26-year-old jetsetter at the time. That soon changed as they set about restoring the old bakery.

Andrew rose to the challenge by heading to California to learn about artisan sourdough from one of the industry’s finest, Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery. He returned with a jar of leaven, the live natural yeast that’s the cornerstone of a Sonoma loaf to this day.

And he was prepared to fight for what he believed in, arguing with his father from the moment he landed back in Sydney, to convince him that naturally fermented sourdough was a better option than the Italian breads Kerry dreamed of.

The Connole family lived on the NSW Central Coast and once they’d fired up Bellata, the brothers spent the next 20 months making a weekly 1040km, 36-hour round trip out there to bake. They’d leave Thursday morning and spend the day doing everything from chopping wood and building the fire to making the dough and hand-shaping loaves before grabbing sleep for two hours while they proved. Then it was wake, bake and leave by Friday at noon, with 300 fresh loaves – a number determined by how many fitted in the car.

Baking in a wood-fired oven

On Saturdays, Kerry would drive to Sydney with his sons’ bread to sell it at Paddington Markets.

Andrew spent the first eight years personally making every loaf. It’s a simple recipe: organic flour, water and salt, with, at the time, 100-plus-hours working weeks. Connole also took a full-time job with a startup Australian airline called Virgin to raise cash to expand the bakery. Sleep was optional.

The path to great bread

From those crazy first years when it was just two brothers, Sonoma has now grown to 220 employees, with a state-of-the-art 2800 sq metre bakery and HQ in Alexandria, which operates around the clock, and six retail stores throughout Sydney.

His commitment to quality is why it takes up to 36 hours to make and bake a single loaf of hand-shaped bread. Time is a modern luxury and an essential part of the great flavour synonymous with Sonoma bread.

Baking in Alexandria.

The growth, like the bread, has been organic. After Bellata they leased a 179sqm space in Arncliffe, building a wood-fired oven there, before a move to Waterloo. Even today, the team use the wooden table a few mates helped build for Bellata.

Sonoma’s big break came with its first restaurant client: Bondi’s Icebergs Dining Room & Bar. Soon Sonoma was found in Sydney’s top restaurants and word-of-mouth and the bread’s reputation grew rapidly. Kerry played delivery man in his yellow Volvo with a luggage trailer on the back.

It wasn’t until around 2005 that the business hit break-even point. Kerry moved to Stanthorpe, Queensland, in 2006, and continued to bake Sonoma’s muesli at home and send it south weekly. Christian decided to concentrate on the cafe side, leaving Andrew to drive the bakery business solo.

The company’s next big moment in 2009 was bittersweet, when Andrew bought the Alexandria warehouse just three days after his father’s death, aged 64.

“Buying the warehouse in Alexandria was a big move, but I always have swing for the fence, so when we moved and baked our first loaf of bread in November 2010, it seemed like we would never fill the space,” he said.

“In the last four-and-a-half years we have continued to grow, but kept the quality.”

The Sonoma bread range

Looking back, he now wishes he’d bought a 5000sqm site, but acknowledges the challenge for any business is picking the right time to invest in growth and how far to stretch.

“After 10 years in business it was time to take the risk and buy our own space so we could create a world-class bakery,” Connole said. “Sonoma has always grown organically in the sense that we never created a business plan from where we started; it was fueled from humble beginnings, massive amounts of passion and determination and a focus on producing a beatific loaf of sourdough bread.

“The next 10 years we will grow the brand to make it significant.”

Connole’s advice is invest in areas that make staff more productive and enable you to manage growth.

“Investment in equipment. When we moved to Alexandria we invested in two, 30-tonne silos and other machinery to enable greater volume whilst making to easier for the bakers to mix large volumes of dough, allowing them to focus on maintaining quality,” he said.

His focus was also on eliminating wastage, greater standards of documentation and some automation so that volumes can grow without compromising quality.

His path to success is like his bread – simple and straightforward: “Plan, make goals, visualise them and then realise them and always put your business first in making the investment.”

But what should entrepreneurs look out for as they grow?

“With growth comes challenges – human capital and the management associated with that and the need to manage all areas of your business with proficiency and skill,” he advises.

Achieving your dreams

So does Connole feel he’s achieved what he set out to do?

“I liken building Sonoma to climbing Mount Everest,” he said. “Where we sit now is at base camp and my only focus is on reaching the summit of Mount Everest.

“What we do in the next 5-10 years is what’s going to get is to the top and really make the brand into something of significance and value.

“It’s never been about the dollar, but building a great brand and business and everything takes care of itself. Most importantly even though we produce volume we still bake amazing bread and that’s what I set out to achieve when we baked our first loaf of sourdough bread in March 2001 long before artisan bakers were spawning like wildfire so after being here in Sydney for 14 years we still produce quality and that’s what has and always will be our ethos.”

The Bondi cafe

Today the range spans 30 products, from naturally fermented sourdough breads such as Miche – dark, round and chewy, with caramelized crust that’s somewhat addictive – as well as loaves using ancient grains such as spelt and kamut. His father would no doubt be pleased to see an Italian ciabatta too.

Then there are the pastries, the muesli and a recent venture into coffee roasting. The company also recently released a gluten-free bread with chia and linseed, made from sorghum, brown rice, buckwheat and tapioca flours.

Connole’s proud to produce a bread for people who can’t eat bread.

“It’s an outstanding product and people who can only eat gluten-free bread finally have a loaf that tastes good,” he said.

For now his attention is focused on opening a new retail site in Rose Bay, building the wholesale side of the business and improving the cafe offering.

“We’re redoing the retail model as it was developed fast and on the fly, with little thought to the design,” he said.

“Now that will be refined to harmonise with the brand and we will get serious. It’s time to start the climb to the top of the mountain.”

And you can’t help thinking that Kerry Connole’s somewhere up there, looking down on all his son’s achieved. Andrew gives thanks to the way his father’s unexpected inspiration came to define his business life.

“Had it not have been his crazy idea we would never have embarked on this amazing journey,” Connole said.

“Dad would be proud and would know that my focus and determination will continue to take Sonoma to new heights whilst never forgetting our humble beginnings and without Dad, none of this would have been possible.”

Father and son beside the restored Bellata oven.
IMPORTANT INFORMATION AND DISCLAIMERS: The information contained in this article is of a general nature and is not intended to be nor should it be considered as professional advice. You should not act on the basis of anything contained in this article without first obtaining specific professional advice. To the extent permitted by law, Bankwest, a division of Commonwealth Bank of Australia ABN 48 123 123 124 AFSL/Australian credit licence 234945, its related bodies corporate, employees and contractors accepts no liability or responsibility to any persons for any loss which may be incurred or suffered as a result of acting on or refraining from acting as a result of anything contained in this article. Bankwest is not responsible for third party websites. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Bankwest, nor does Bankwest confirm their accuracy.

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