No hands kneaded?

As the baking industry struggles to find staff, is bread “untouched by the human hand” the way of the future?


Gera Kazakov CC-BY ND

Dough at Big Loaf Bakery makes it way into the proofing chamber.

Big Loaf Bakery in O’Connor prides itself on it baking bread properly. Workers of all ages, genders and ethnicities come together to form the human production line for baked goods. Flour covers the table tops. Space seems like a luxury as ingredients, raw dough and baked goods are placed wherever they can fit. To the outsider it might seem like chaos. But every day fresh baked goods line the front of their store, the result of the combined efforts of the day and night shift.

However, regardless of the size of the bakery, a rising issue within the industry still impacts Big Loaf – Bakers have become the new hot commodity. ABS labour force statistics show that 5000 bakers and pastry cooks have left the industry. In 2018, 35,000 people worked in the industry, with that number dropping to 30,000 in 2021. Department of Training and Workforce Development data from 2022 shows that the number of new apprentices within in the industry is dropping. Baking apprentice uptakes have dropped by 42% and bread baking apprenticeship uptake has decreased by 10%.

Big Loaf Bakery head baker Pete Holodnyj worries that there’s a looming shortage of new talent in the industry. He says he’s heard from teachers at the local Tafe that this year there’s only four people learning to bake bread. He’s not sure what it means for the the future of hand baked bread.

Holodynj believes a baker should be physically involved with the baking process. Covered in dough and flour, he oversees workers handcrafting the goods they make. When asked about his style of baking, he says his hands-on approach “is the only way I’ve ever done it.”

                   Workers at Big Loaf Bakery’s O’Connor Factory prepare the next day’s bread. Photo: Gera Kazakov (CC BY-ND).

Big Loaf’s baking process is completely different to how commercial bakeries make their bread.

Family Foods Group is one of two remaining commercial-output bakeries in Western Australia. FFG is the parent company of Mias and Bovell’s bakery, and Oliver Pownall is the technical manager of the plant. The factory’s specialty is producing the supermarket staple brands available at major grocers across the state.

It was Pownall’s father who created a point of difference with Bovell’s bread: He come up with the idea of putting “untouched by the human hand” on all their bread. Walking through the bakery in Canning Vale, you quickly see why he can confidently make the claim.

While Pownall’s own baking history begins at his father bakery (when he was 14 years old back in England), he has worked his way up the baking hierarchy into managing the FFG’s baking plant. Dressed in a long white coat, he passionately explains the Bovell’s mechanised baking process. The Bovell’s secret, he says, lies in the premixed bags of ingredients.

             Oliver Pownall with the special mixes which make up the Bovell’s secret recipe. Photo: Gera Kazakov (CC BY-ND).
           A new Bovell’s grain formula, the exact contents remaining a Bovell’s trade secret. Photo: Gera Kazakov (CC BY-ND).

Only Pownall and a few other FFG higher ups know the exact ratios of ingredients. The pre-mix bags are one of the two points of human contact in the Bovell’s baking process. Workers pour the contents of the bags into the mixer, and from then on, the mechanised journey of the humble loaf of bread begins.

The baking floor of Bovell’s is divided into various stations where the bread stays for an exact designated time. Bovell’s baking process is refined down to the second. The dough proving and the bread cooling process are both stops on a journey that resembles an intricate city subway system.

Workers in spotless white coats watch thousands of loaves pass them by every day, unable to touch them, as human contact will ruin Bovell’s claim. Any bread that must be touched is removed from the line, put into waste bins, and sold to farms for animal feed.

As the bread is bagged it passes through an X-ray and a metal detector before being automatically placed into crates, and the crates are immediately stacked onto dollies.

All the workers do is wheel the dollies into the receivals bay, from there the bread makes its way to supermarkets across the state.

                          Pownall uses special testing equipment to measure the softness of his bread, a priority for FFG.
Photo: Gera Kazakov (CC BY-ND).

One of the only points of human contact in the Bovell’s process is when Pownall measures the crumb softness against Bovell’s competitor’s loaves. And while Pownall claims that not touching the bread will “absolutely assist in shelf life,” there is no hard science behind the process.

Associate Professor in food science at Curtin University Ranil Coorey says regardless of whether there is human contact, the baking process will kill any contaminants in the dough. Post-bake, he says, is a different story. But he believes that comes down to the facilities themselves.

But to Pownall, who describes tradespeople as a “rare commodity,” the level of automation at Bovell’s is seen as the answer to baker shortages that are worrying Holodynj from Big Loaf Bakery, and that FFG has also experienced.

“Automation becomes a necessity for the industry when you have a lack of skills.
If you’ve not got any apprentices coming up, if you’re losing the trade, that’s where the automation will come in.”

Oliver Pownall

                                          Bread rolls out of the production line at Bovell’s. Photo: Gera Kazakov (CC BY-ND).
                                     Another point of human contact at Bovell’s, as Pownall holds up a fresh loaf from the plant.
Photo: Gera Kazakov (CC BY-ND).

Despite this, Holodnyj still believes in a future of handmade bread. He also acknowledges the differences that exist in the industry.

“I think making bread in that way is just a part of the industry now, in the same way there’s Bugatti and then there’s Ford. One makes a really high-end bespoke product, the other is mass produced, and I think it’s the same with bread.”

Pownall agrees, believing there is space in the market for both types of bread. Pownall ran his own business before returning to FFG, and says Bovell’s process “allows for bakers to have their own niche.” Pownall uses Bovell’s for his sandwich bread, yet also bakes his own artisan bread.

He said the demand for supermarket bread was driven by changes in how people shop. He believes people are now looking to do a “one-stop supermarket shop,” and are shifting away from specialty bakers, butchers and green grocers. “That’s where this model of baking fits in,” he says.

Associate Professor Gary Mortimer studies food retailing and consumer behaviour, and says what Bovell’s is doing is not a new phenomenon. “One-touch fruit and veg,” he says, stems from similar consumer concerns around hygiene and food quality.

“Consumers understand that food is produced and grown and manufactured in some locations and transported to markets or a retail chain or grocery store. But they’re probably not completely aware of the processing, production, manufacturing and logistics behind the product.”

This is evident in our daily shop, which Professor Mortimer describes as a “low involvement” activity. “We walk in, we grab the bananas, chicken fillets, we go to the bakery aisle, grab our favourite bread… We don’t think of the process the food has gone through to get to the shelf.”

When he asked about bread “untouched by the human hand,” hands-on baker Holodnyj says it’s not only strange, but also a bit sad.

“I can’t imagine that you could rock up to work at a place like that and be happy and enthusiastic. It sounds corny, but making the product with love and care when you don’t touch it… maybe you’re more of a technician at that point than a baker.”

Asked the same question, food science expert Coorey is quick to provide some global context: “Do consumer’s care about how their bread is made? It’s a very first world problem” he laughs. In some countries people are screaming for any kind of bread, while we are quick to throw a loaf away if it’s not perfect.

“That disparity is huge. We here look at a loaf bread and go ‘oh, not good enough.’ That’s a very, very first world problem.”

Associate Professor Ranil Coorey

More than 9 billion people are going to inhabit the earth soon, and Coorey says we’re going to have to feed them somehow. While he’s confident the demand for bread will endure, Coorey says better food production systems will be required to fill that demand.

And whether bread is machine-produced or hand-made, Professor Coorey says: “Nutritionally, it’s the same wheat.”

                                    Big Loaf head baker Pete Holodnyj holds his “freo sour“. Photo: Gera Kazakov (CC BY-ND).

So, while both Pownall and Holodnyj are concerned about the future of the profession, Pownall reckons the Bovell’s model is better for the baker, despite the lack of human involvement in the process.

“The old-fashioned way you’re working all night,” he says, before explaining that Bovell’s mechanised process provides the workers with more sociable hours.

But Holodnyj stands by his argument that when love is put in, the “bread will be better for it.”

He says: “I hope we keep making bread properly, with care. There’s no machine that can make a loaf of bread as well as a person can – not yet anyway.”