Irrewarra Sourdough – a sweet business

Fifteen years ago a couple of Melbourne lawyers decided to leave the rat race and pursue their passion for bread. Their business is now one of Australia's largest artisan bakeries.

These days start-ups are usually something to do with technology: perhaps yet another smartphone app or, closer to home, an online business news website, but not always.

In January 2000, when the Nasdaq was last at 4700 and the world was as tech-obsessed as it is now, a couple of Melbourne lawyers started baking bread in rural Victoria. Exactly 15 years later their business is producing 20,000 loaves of sourdough bread a week and two tonnes of granola and turning over $5 million a year.

Irrewarra Sourdough is now one of Australia’s largest artisan bakeries, and was recently valued at $8m -- not bad for a little bread start-up launched at the peak of the internet bubble 15 years ago. (Mind you, Google started around the same time, and it’s now valued at $US350 billion).

But John and Bronwynne Calvert are living their dream. As 30-something lawyers living in Melbourne in the 90s, their best fun was getting home at night and making sourdough bread in their kitchen. Now they do it for a living from a beautiful 19th century farmhouse in the green hills of rural Victoria.

When John’s dad became ill, and they had to move to the family farm near Geelong, they focused on making the perfect loaf, and when they started looking for something to do other than the law, that was the obvious answer.

They had met in Darwin, where Bronwynne was a judge’s associate and John was a young law graduate on a gap year travelling around Australia, as you do. They stayed in Darwin for a while and eventually moved back to Melbourne, where each got a job in a different big law firm.

But it wasn’t what they really wanted to do, so on New Year’s Day 1999 they looked up “baking supplies” Yellow Pages (not Google in those days - Sergey Brin and Larry Page were still at college) and bought a Spanish oven and a French mixer.

They had already bought an old 60-acre farm at a place called Irrewarra near Colac and during 1999 they fitted out the stables as a bakery. Their first serious bake was on New Year’s Day 2000.

And so later that day they loaded their loaves of bread into the back of the car and drove through the Otways to Lorne on the Great Ocean Road, and pulled up outside a greengrocer named “Lorne Greens” (get it?) and nervously took one inside to show the owner.

He liked it and said he’d take a tray full. Then it was onto the Aireys Inlet General Store, where the same thing happened.

From there the business just took off: the Great Ocean Road had never had good fresh bread before. The Calverts were baking at night and delivering during the day, sleeping when they could.

Within a few weeks a courier company called and offered to deliver the bread for them, an offer they quickly accepted.

After the first summer, when the holidaymakers returned home, Melbourne shops started ringing the Calverts in Irrewarra, asking where they can get some of this bread that their customers were demanding.

So the courier started driving to Melbourne as well, starting with the Victoria Market and then grocers around most of inner Melbourne. They got a call from Woolworths last year asking them to supply the supermarkets but had to say no – even with five ovens now on two sites at Irrewarra, they simply didn’t have the capacity.

A while ago they started baking granola so they could sell into Sydney (granola doesn’t go stale) and that line has taken off as well, although it wasn’t smooth sailing at first.

Sanitarium, the food company owned by the Seventh Day Adventists, owned an old trademark on the word “granola” and in 2012 they sued all the local producers of granola to try to force them to stop using that label on their products.

Others decided to call it “toasted muesli” to avoid the legal fees, but in suing the Calverts, Sanitarium had picked on the wrong granola-making lawyers. Irrewarra Sourdough fought, and won – the Federal Court ruled that the term had obviously become generic.

The Calverts now want to keep expanding and improving the efficiency of their operation, while retaining the hand-made processes. Some things can be automated, such as granola packaging, but making the sourdough bread will always be labour-intensive.

They have applied for a manufacturing grant designed to help replace the dying motor industry in Geelong and perhaps eventually they will have the capacity to supply the big supermarkets, as well the smaller grocers.

As for whether they will eventually sell the business or turn it into a multi-generational family business, that depends on their two children, Jack (19) and Georgina (16). Bronwynne says they’d prefer to hand it onto the kids rather than exit, but no decisions have been made yet.

Anyway, that’s a fair way off: John and Bronwynne are now both 50 and looking forward to the next phase of their business’s growth. Perhaps a bakery in Sydney?


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