Written by Kerrie Alexander
It’s almost inconceivable that a man who was highly allergic to flour from a young age has spent over 60 years as a baker.
You see, Max Sarah’s father and grandfather both owned bakeries and as it was done in the early 1900s, parents passed on the tricks of their trade so the businesses could be handed down to future generations.
Even though the allergy gave the now 83-year-old breathing difficulties, Max was put to work from about 10 years of age, chopping wood for the wood-fired oven that could hold up to 150 loaves of bread in tins.
It was an era when sickness was put on the back burner and work took precedence.
“My grandfather and father were bakers, so it was imperative that I became a baker,” Max said.
“It’s not what I wanted to do but I did it.
“I didn’t like baking when I was a kid … I had to split the wood for the oven at my dad’s bakery there was no electricity. It was extremely hard work.
“I was an asthmatic and allergic to flour and house dust, but you just got on with it. Masks weren’t heard of back then.”
At 20, Max borrowed 1000 pounds from his father to buy his own bakery in a country town called Marong, just outside of Bendigo.
It was the first of six bakeries that he and his wife Noelle would eventually own, with two being the much-loved Sarah’s Bakery on Main Street and on the Esplanade Scarness in Hervey Bay.
“In Marong everything was done by hand back then,” said Max as he recalled the days when he would start late in the afternoon and work through the night to get the baking done. Early next morning the country delivery of bread, pies, milk and mail involving 500 miles per week was also up to him.
The next bakery they owned was in the Victorian High Country with freezing cold and snow in winter.
“The science of bread baking was totally different back in those days to what it is now.
“We had what we call time doughs, where you had to wait three hours for it to prove.
“Then along came Vitamin C (a mix) that you added to the flour and made ‘instant dough’, which meant that it could stand for 20 minutes then you could do what you wanted with that dough but that didn’t come in until the early 60s.
“A good flour is a vital ingredient in bread making but Victoria’s high rainfall and cold weather stripped the protein in the wheat at times to about 6 and 8%.
“The protein was so weak at times in the flour it needed something to boost it.”
It was during this era that Max discovered a breakthrough in the chemistry of bread baking, which was recognised and used by some of the biggest bread companies in Australia.
“I got two bread improvers, one super and one regular, and made a super one which made such a strong protein in the flour.”
It was of course a pinnacle of his career.
As time went by and they owned more bakeries in Victoria, had six children, hired and fired staff, trained apprentices, and met some characters along the way, it was time for a change.
They moved to Hervey Bay 42 years ago and in between travelling and working as a ‘relieving baker’ all around Australia, Max and Noelle bought Brightways Hardware Store in Urangan in 1979 which was located underneath the Sportsman’s Club in Urangan.
While the hardware store was a success, he was still a baker at heart. They sold the hardware and decided it was time to get back to his roots and open a family business so that it too could be passed down to his children.
In 1988 the iconic Sarah’s Bakery was born.
“I got back to Hervey Bay, and I thought bugger it! I’ll open a bakery in Hervey Bay and that was my fifth bakery.
“I just had to get back to my trade, but I also bought it for my family … and that’s how it all started.”
The couple’s eldest son Michael took the family trade by the horns when the first store opened across from the cenotaph in Pialba.
They supplied to many other local businesses, whale watch boats, and even to Eurong Resort on Fraser Island.
Michael is still working in the trade in Toowoomba after settling there.
There were not many people in town that didn’t try one of their much-loved birthday cakes, pies, sausage rolls, breads and pastries.
Their youngest daughter Sharon worked in the shop for many years. Their son Steven also became a baker, buying his first bakery at Burrum Heads, after that he is now the proud owner of the very successful Top of the Bay Bakery at Bideford Street, Torquay.
For Max and Noelle, this is what starting the family business on the Fraser Coast was all about.
Max said nothing makes him happier than seeing his sons take on the family trade and making a success of it.
Having had businesses for over 60 years and in the spirit of our entrepreneur’s edition this month, Max was happy to share some of the secrets to his success.
He said always try your best to start a family owned and operate business that incorporated your children and always keep a close eye on your competition.
“Your children will be your best asset because they will want to work because it has meaning for them. Good staff are always hard to find.”
Now married for 63 years and fully retired, Max and Noelle take time to enjoy their 14 grandchildren and social gatherings with their Cool Country Club music group.
Max is happy to drop in and get some bread from Steven’s bakery for his bread and take in the smell of freshly baked bread but does not stay long fear he will never leave.