Q&A with William Petersen, Co-Owner of Infinity Bakery, Sydney’s First Organic Sourdough Bakery.
Inspired by a classic Parisian bakery, the original founder of Infinity Bakery, Philip Searle, brought the ancient craft of ‘Levain’ baking traditions back to Darlinghurst in 1997. Now, under the guidance of dynamic brother-and-sister team William and Sophie Petersen, Infinity Bakery has recharged its heritage with a fresh new energy and launched its third location just last year.
As part of our ongoing Behind The Kounta series, we spoke to William Petersen about Infinity Bakery’s growth over the last 20 years, and discovered what he’s learned along the way.
How has Infinity Bakery grown over the past 20 years?
When my father took over the bakery in 2004, the bakery had one location in Darlinghurst which sold wholesale organic sourdough only. We’ve come a long way since then, opening a new production facility and café in Paddington, and an additional café in Manly.
Moving into the café space has allowed us to add a significant number of products to our range – we now supply a variety of patisserie items, coffee and juices alongside our large selection of breads. We’ve also added a wholesale arm to our operations and currently serve around 120-150 customers there.
We’ve grown from having three staff members – who were all bakers in 2000 – to 45 employees across our entire organisation today, including wait staff, bakers, delivery drivers, a marketing manager and a finance department.
We’ve also expanded our product line to include several variants, and went from from offering one kind of sourdough for instance, to many different types (white, whole wheat, spelt, rye). Our other bread loaves, baps and rolls now also come in plain, seeded spelt, rye and whole wheat, with sesame seeds and more!
What would you say are the biggest market changes you’ve seen over the years?
It was harder in the 90’s because no one really knew about sourdough. Back then, Turkish and white tin loaves led the way. Now, there are dozens of types of bread that are well known and sought after, in particular sourdough. This market movement has allowed us to expand our range and has played a huge role in our success.
What lessons have you learned along the way?
So many. Running a business teaches you something new everyday, it’s a constant education. Firstly, coming from a non-hospitality background, we had to learn how the service industry works and that in itself was huge.
It also took some trial and error trying to find the right balance between consistency and variety, and one important lesson we’ve learned is that it’s crucial to stick to what you do best. We’ve added patisserie items to our cafés and make our own butter, chai, jams and relishes onsite, but learned that buying goods outside of our core – such as coffee and juices – was a better approach than spreading ourselves too thin trying to produce them. In short, we’ve found that deviating from our core offering did not add value so much as it did the opposite.
What is it like working with your sister?
I enjoy working with my sister, and like in any close business relationship, it’s important for each partner to have ownership of areas that play to their strengths. I focus on sales, marketing and HR, and Sophie focuses more on the operations and finance side of things. We had teething issues when we first begun of course, and sometimes still have disagreements, but that can only be expected when there is a strong passion for the business and close relationships involved!
What do you think the key to keeping good staff is?
Building genuine relationships with staff is important. You need to be able to give them what they want and also get what you need from them, and maintaining that balance can be difficult sometimes. Our staff are people too and understanding their perspectives helps us respond to them in a way they can relate to and feel good about. It’s easy to make assumptions about a person when a certain situation doesn’t go to plan, but very often, there is a different side to the story that’s very much worth listening to.
Conversing honestly and openly with our employees helps us move forward with issues quickly and builds good relationships all round. It also helps us quickly determine whether they are committed and interested in the job, or not, and that can lead to a different conversation that needs to be had at the end of the day.
Are there any processes you’ve found that have made a difference in your day-to-day operations?
We’re constantly introducing new processes and all the small changes add up to making a big difference in the day-to-day. I believe it’s important to acknowledge that you can always be doing something better. Nothing is ever down-pat in the service industry – markets change, staff change, the business evolves and processes need to be continually reviewed and optimised. This applies to everything from recipes, to staff, operational processes and more.
What processes have you introduced that work particularly well?
Our weekly ‘Week In Progress’ meeting has been very helpful for us. It’s simple, but effective and keeps everyone abreast of what is going on so they’re informed and prepared. We also use Whatsapp for group messaging and communicate any issues that everyone needs to be aware of, improving the response time between departments and the way we work overall.
We continually adapt to change our takings sheets and the way we record information. With multiple orders, walk-ins, and customer pick-ups, it’s important for us to manage the flow of information we have so we avoid mistakes.
We also implemented a wikipedia-style intranet loaded with content on front-of-house processes, including documents and videos on everything from how we make sandwiches, how we clean, how long we bake for, what recipes we use and how to train new staff. Videos have really helped our staff with consistency, independence and efficiency.
What has been the most effective way you have marketed the bakery?
Word-of-mouth has been the best way we know to acquire new customers and the key to that is having a great product. We can also generate a huge amount of press with some PR efforts in the lead up towards an event or launch.
We don’t do direct marketing, including email and post box drops because we find that word-of-mouth, social media, PR and online reviews have more of an impact for us. Sites like Time Out, Urban List and Broadsheet have been really effective for our brand too.
Which suppliers would you highly recommend?
Wholegrain Milling Co. are our organic and sustainable flour suppliers. Most of their produce comes from New South Wales (NSW), and they’ve been a strong partner for us.
We also recently joined forces with Gabriel Coffee, who have been excellent in their training and consistency, and in keeping us informed on trends in the coffee industry.
We use a local company called Simon Says for juice, and we’ve also been going to Nicholson & Saville from the beginning for premium olive oils, cheese and meats. These guys are great, we love that their produce is sourced mainly from NSW, Victoria or South Australia, and they know their stuff!
Have you acquired any equipment that has made a real difference to the business in the past 20 years?
We replaced the ovens in 2014, because the original ones were no longer keeping up with our production line efficiently. Also, with increasing popularity and customer expectations in Sydney for good coffee, we upgraded the coffee machine and found a new supplier to make sure we’re able to stay competitive in this space.
What tools have you implemented over the years to grow with the times?
Like most businesses today, ours relies a lot on the internet, so we’re looking at improving our connection firstly. We’re continuing to push beyond brick-and-mortar, but if the internet is down it’s like having our doors locked! We’re also moving our wholesale customers to an online system that gives them more visibility over their daily orders.
Finally, what advice would you give to other hospitality owners about moving with the times?
Keep an eye on industry trends and constantly evaluate if your offering is effective for your market. Don’t be tempted to do everything, do what you do best and work on continually improving what you do well.
Also, follow your gut and don’t be afraid to change – because the longer you delay the harder it gets!
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