The mystery ingredient of
A1 Bakery’s success
From Zahlé with love, the bakery is now a Brunswick landmark
T’S Saturday morning at A1 Bakery, up Sydney Road. Everyone is here. There’s an Indian family tucking into tangy zaatar pizzas. A young tattooed couple savours the hearty fatteh. A table of Africans with girls in hijab samples the cheese and spinach pies. And elderly Arabic gentlemen reminisce over tea with mint. It’s an enduring scene of a lively cosmopolitan neighbourhood.
But this morning has something extra: Elias is working the oven. Elias Raji started A1 with his brother-in-law 30 years ago, and now spends most of his time on the family farm.
Its 1300 olive trees supply A1 Bakery with their oil, one of the many fresh ingredients that give their food such reliable quality.
You can see evidence of Elias on the walls. There is a tapestry of the Zaffe wedding dance, one of his favourite pastimes. And Elias himself painted portraits of St Charbel Makhlouf and the Virgin Mary. This morning he is making a traditional bread for a memorial service in his Maronite church.
Elias is the link back to the roots of A1 in Lebanon, more specifically the town of Zahlé. This “City of Wine and Poetry”, perched in the Beqaa valley, is renowned for its hospitality and delicious strawberries. Elias himself is named after the Prophet Elias, the town’s patron saint.
We owe a lot to Zahlé. It’s the origin of one of Victoria’s most popular Premiers, Steve Bracks, as well as his relative Frederick who started Bracks Slacks. Zahlé is a key ingredient in Melbourne’s unique restaurant culture, giving birth to prominent chefs Greg Malouf and Michael Bacash. In literature, Zahlé produced one of Australia’s finest poets and writers, David Malouf.
It’s not just the people who migrate. They bring their village with them.
I’m having tea with Haikal, the eldest son who now runs the A1. The family includes a daughter, Racha, who is busy now with a family, and twin sons, Daniel (with the beard) and Anthony (who runs marathons).
Haikal tells me the story. Back in Lebanon, Elias started work as an electrician. Then he married and needed to provide for his pregnant wife. Fortunately, he had a sister in Australia. “And he thought, you know what, maybe Australia is the ticket.”
After arriving in Melbourne, he and his brother-in-law, Chafic Choueiri, saw an opening for a traditional Lebanese bakery and then he settled in Brunswick to start a family (they now live in Coburg).
I ask Haikal how A1 differs from bakeries you might find back in Zahlé.
“Here, we are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. So over there, the bakers will just open for like, half a day. Close at lunchtime and then that’s it.”
So it’s an all-day breakfast at A1. Foul mudammas is designed to fill the stomach with hearty beans that lasts the day. But in Brunswick, it becomes a delicious lunch.
The basics have not changed over the 30 years.
“We don’t want to go down the road of smashed avo and poached eggs, that sort of stuff,” says Haikal. “We want to try to keep it traditional.”
They began with a menu of ten items, but now they have a wide range of toppings for their pizzas. The key is quality control.
“I got that trait from my dad. I always try to make sure that food is coming out the way that I learned. So I always make sure there are fresh ingredients. And we’ve got like the best bakers that have been doing it for so long.”
Indeed, their staff is legendary. The bakers Mohammed Ali and Abu Khoder have been there since the beginning. At the counter, Rima’s booming voice cuts through the table chatter (they’ve never needed microphones) and Nesrine charms with her smile. And there are new staff like Paul who makes the creamiest flat white.
A1 Bakery is not looking to make any changes to its traditional fare, but they are expanding their business. You can now find their food truck at concerts around Melbourne.
The loyalty of their customers is evident in the art that has been donated by locals. My favourite is the illustration of A1 by Laura Holley, which makes a wonderful jigsaw gift.
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Haikal is happy to continue in Brunswick. “You can pretty much try anything in Brunswick and I think it’s changing for the better.”
It’s a good note to end. Haikal has to get back to the coffee machine.
Rima calls, “Number 78, falafel platter!” A worker in hi-viz collects his order.
The fresh food keeps coming and coming, all the way from Zahlé.
This article was originally published on‘Culture Makers’, a newsletter written by Kevin Murray.