Leaving the corporate world for life on the bread (making) line
A young couple have walked away from corporate careers to bake bread in New Plymouth. And there's no going back, they tell Sonja Slinger, as their billowing business takes off.
It's funny where life takes people. Running took Rosie Sargisson and Jeff Fong away from the glitz and pace of hyped corporate careers in Singapore and led them on a journey into travel, food and ultimately a new life back in New Zealand.
They are the first to admit that, never in their dreams 10 years ago, when they were steadfast into studying engineering at Auckland University with goals of climbing the corporate ladder and chasing cool salaries that they would give it all away to bake bread in sleepy little New Plymouth.
Sargisson, an Auckland girl from private schooling and professional parents (mum Hannah Sargisson is a high court associate judge, dad Peter is an architect), was sold on city living back then, always thought she'd strive to live in bigger brighter places, never considering for a moment that she would cherish the quiet life of suburban New Plymouth.
"But, I do, that's just it. I love it here," she says, from the sunny deck of Fong's parents' home in Merrilands where the smell of baking bread wafts around us and tuis sing and frolic among kowhai in the nearby garden.
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It was Sargisson who convinced partner Fong while out running mountain trails and tracks through Europe during their search for something else that they should turn their backs on corporate life and set up a business that they could work together in but which offered a lifestyle too – forget the stress of corporate living, have the chance to run, practise yoga but challenge themselves in a whole new venture.
This from the girl who had never run, never baked bread, never wanted to live anywhere smaller than Auckland.
Fong grew up in New Plymouth, studied hard and earned a spot at Auckland Uni to delve into a career in process engineering. That's where he met Sargisson. They finished degrees, landed graduate jobs with dairy giant Fonterra and after a short time working in Auckland, went on to Singapore to polish their careers.
"Living in Singapore, which is like living in a city with an area of Lake Taupo but with 6 million people, it's extremely urban. We lived 30 stories up in a massive apartment and life is all about your job," says Sargisson.
"There's a huge amount of pressure around your job," adds Fong. "At lunch time people are sitting around talking about work, about their promotion or getting further ahead, development of careers. It's a common lunchtime topic."
At the time, they were on that journey too and it was when a restructure came in Fong's department and he was made redundant that he began to explore the city, its food and its culture. Fong's parents Esther and Norm Fong (IT specialist and engineer respectively) were born in New Zealand of Chinese immigrants and while Fong felt every bit a kiwi and had been exposed to some Asian cuisine and tradition at home, he hadn't really explored Asian culture or taken much interest in the food.
"I basically was sitting around at home creating a blog site for our running but all the time heading out and exploring different foods and cooking practices in Singapore, "adds Fong. He went to local markets, became a regular customer to some stall holders and began to enjoy the connections he was making with foods and the hawkers.
They'd begun serious running by then too. Sargisson, who grew up around sailing in Auckland and had competed internationally, had never run but was now hooked on the running high after being introduced to the odd jog by flatmates in New Zealand and Fong slowly lured her into longer events.
"We started travelling with running, going to different countries and running trails, in Mongolia and Vietnam. We met a lot of different people and saw so much," said Fong.
They were growing out of Singapore and started to expand their life horizons. They decided that when Sargisson's contract ended, they would head to Europe to run trails there and see what happened.
This is where the bread comes in. And not just any bread – sourdough.
"We spent months hiking and running trails in Europe – Slovenia, Italy, France, Norway – and we began to notice how much bread played an important role in people's lives," said Sargisson.
They stayed in mountain huts and villages, saw people turning up to manage the huts with sourdough mixes and baking bread to cater for hikers.
"All these villages had bakeries. It was a daily ritual for people, especially men in certain countries, lining up each morning to get the bread. It was a major part of their life," adds Fong.
The pair sampled breads, ate lots and started to learn from other travellers and locals how to make it and enrolled themselves in a sourdough cooking school in England. They admit, they kind of became fixated with sourdough, the history of it and how easily the starter could be transported in a backpack to be turned into wonderful loaves later on.
Sargisson, who had had gluten issues before the discovery of sourdough, found she had no problem with it and that was another impetus for their foray into baking it.
"Each country has its own version of sourdough, all different from the other," explains Sargisson.
"After Slovenia, we did Italy on five days of slow trains, stopping at small towns along the way, we were following a food guide," recalls Fong. They visited a flour mill in Italy, and watched a man hand-spooning grains of wheat into the mill.
"It was fantastic to see the kind of culture and care they take with their bread. There's an intimacy in the food there," said Sargisson. "I'd come from mass production of butter, like 300,000 tonnes, to watching this guy hand-spooning wheat into a mill. It was amazing to me.
"Everything is fresh, and nothing has really changed in the process for maybe 100 years. There's a relationship with food and the people who buy it, who sell it. If you feel lonely or feel like having a chat you go down to the bakery or café and buy some bread or take a coffee and have a chat. It's a different relationship over there.
"We didn't particularly like the Italian bread though. It's primarily white, some of it was good but we have decided not to bake like the Italians," laughs Fong.
Their European adventure was a life changer. "I think the longer we spent away from that corporate world and the pace and chase of career, the more we realised how much you didn't need, we even found that doing our washing wasn't essential," said Sargisson. "Yes, it was," Fong pipes up.
"Particularly in Singapore, the only thing to really do there is work and shop, pure consumerism," says Sargisson. "When you stop consuming it's incredibly relaxing. All that consumerism isn't getting you anywhere, you just have to work more to pay for it."
The couple decided to head home. They'd talked over hours and through many runs as to what they would do and it seemed sourdough was the way. They rented a house in Crete for a month and practised baking bread daily to find what worked, and what didn't. Then they hopped on a plane and came home.
Billow bakery was born in April this year.
They moved in with Fong's parents, who were by now long time empty nesters, and set up a bakery in the garage/laundry after purchasing some basics, a baker's oven, loaf tins and a couple of fridges. They'd brought back a dough starter, aka a mother, from Europe (completely with the permission of MAF, says Fong) experimented and proved until they perfected their products.
They bake around 30 loaves of varying types every other day, including plain, wholemeal, spiced fruit, rye and carroway and a speciality loaf which differs depending on demand or what they fancy baking. They source New Zealand milled wheat, some of it organic for specific loaves, and this week's speciality is a cranberry and coconut loaf and my, it's definitely good.
When they are not baking, they are mixing and looking at business development. Sargisson is also teaching yoga part-time and they are both still running, currently training for the Kepler Challenge Mountain run in December.
They are passionate about what they are doing, and admittedly at around $8 a loaf, it's at the high end of the market but they refuse to lower their standards or use cheaper ingredients. They have researched their price and believe it's on a par with other artisan bakers who are game enough to take on the tricky challenge of working with sourdough, which uses 3 basic ingredients – water, flour and salt, no yeast.
They sell their bread via local markets, online and through a couple of stores in town.
"I love talking to people at the market, I'm always enthusiastic to have a chat with people and get to know our customers. It's that connection with people that we saw in Europe, anyone whose lived there would know what I mean - going to the local baker, local butcher," says Fong.
Sargisson: "A lot of people see a sweet thing as a treat, but I say that a treat can be a really delicious loaf of bread that's also good for you. Europeans see bread as a daily thing, it's a way of life to go out and buy bread every day."
Fong and Sargisson (both 29) are not making millions but they are breaking even and slowly gaining in profits as demand increases. But importantly, they are enjoying life, their work and each other. They are risk takers, given up safe secure careers to delve into an unknown business and future. Good on them.