The story behind Tivoli Road Bakery
Michael and Pippa James were offered an opportunity to buy a bakery, and the husband and wife team have been on the rise ever since.
Chances are you’ve heard of Tivoli Road Bakery — or at least seen their baked goods. Thanks to a solid following on social media, a book and a reputation as one of Australia’s best bakeries, Pippa and Michael’s South Yarra shop in Melbourne garners admiration from around the world for their renowned breads and pastries.
Considering the lines and constant customer demand, the Jameses are humble about their little business, making Tivoli Road Bakery all the more endearing.
An opportunity is born
Tivoli is the sort of place that looks like it’s always been there. But it wasn’t — Tivoli came to fruition after MoVida Bakery decided to close up shop in 2013. “Michael was working for MoVida as a baker and pastry chef,” says Pippa. “About 15 months in, they offered us the chance to buy it — so we did.”
MoVida reopened as Tivoli after a short closure and a deal with Mum. “We had no money,” says Pippa. “I had to call my Mum up to get an emergency loan because I was $20,000 short. We closed for three days and did a deep clean, but we really needed to keep trading. We just rebranded and made slow, incremental changes towards the way we wanted the offering to be.”
It was 18 months before they refit the shop, which shows just how fast Pippa and Michael hit the ground running on their passion project. “We did wholesale to a few key cafés and we’d just pay the bills and the staff. There’s not a huge lot of profit in baking — we just make a nice product for the customers,” says Michael.
Michael and Pippa had never run a business solo before they took the leap with Tivoli, and there were a few hurdles at the start. With Michael taking care of the food offering, Pippa took up the management reins, covering everything from finances to staffing.
“The first lesson I learned was to handle your own books,” says Pippa. “I worked in a senior management capacity before at other restaurant groups and I outsourced the bookkeeping. In hindsight, I didn’t have much experience with that.”
Pippa decided to bring the bookkeeping in-house after quickly realising outsourcing wasn’t working for Tivoli. “The people I was getting to do the job didn’t really understand the business, and that was really hard,” she says. “In the end, I did it myself as it was easier. We were able to have a better handle on how we were tracking much faster once I took over.”
In the beginning, Pippa relied on the advice of a close friend she used to work with — who also happened to be an accountant. “She did a lot of the setup with me and really helped me. I already understood reading P&Ls and what to watch out for in terms of managing costs and all that kind of stuff, but in terms of the week in, week out, paying suppliers and pay roll — she taught me a lot about that.”
Tivoli started small when it came to their team, but an increase in popularity and an extra operating day proved difficult for a handful of staff to navigate. “When we first started opening on Mondays, I was in the kitchen — and I’m not a chef,” says Pippa. “We only had one barista and I used to help him when he needed it.”
The bakery now has 18 staff, with the front of house expanding from one to four, which is essential with a growing customer base. “Front of house has grown as the shop is quite busy,” says Michael. Pippa and Michael focus on open communication with staff, which has led to the business having low turnover levels when it comes to employees, with many working at the bakery for a number of years. “We put a lot of [effort] into making it a nice place to work in spite of the 3am starts and physical nature of the work,” says Pippa. “We sit down with them one-on-one on a regular basis and do appraisal stuff and talk to them about what they want to learn and do.”
Tivoli also fosters a culture of progression inside and outside the workplace, which is important for staff motivation. “Our head baker has been with us for four years and we made her head baker early last year,” says Michael. “We try to train them up.”
Pippa and Michael are also encouraging of staff who wish to progress their careers outside the store. “Our head chef really wants to get into food styling, and he got some great exposure to that when we did our book,” says Pippa. “We are supportive of him using our contacts and even our kitchen if he wants to do test shoots. Another example is our shop manager who has a sideline business which is starting to grow, so she’s dropping a day so she can continue to do that while working with us. We’re not rigid in terms of an employer–employee relationship. I don’t know if that’s common in our industry.”
Tivoli Road is incredibly invested in social media, with Instagram serving as their main platform of choice. The bakery has nearly 34,000 followers that all tune in for their daily pastry hit. It’s also an effective method to advertise products, including the bakery’s weekend specials. “It’s our main way of showing the world what we’re up to,” says Michael. “When we do specials, for example wattleseed sourdough, if you post a photo, it’s pretty much going to sell it. But if you don’t, it may struggle. I’ve really noticed a difference in the past two to three years — it helps us sell a lot.”
Despite the fact Tivoli could easily fill a bigger space — and it’s one of the most frequently asked questions — the Jameses are content with what they’ve got. “We’re happy with our local, independent, family-run bakery, so there are no plans at the moment,” says Michael.
“We just want to make good products and keep an eye on things.” With no expansion plans on the cards in the immediate future, they have decided to take things down a notch in other areas. “We’ve scaled back some of our production,” says Pippa. “We’ve dropped a bit of wholesale and we’re taking a break from farmers markets to see how it makes it more manageable. Last year, it got to the point where equipment was breaking all the time and everything was pushed to the limit.”
For now, Pippa and Michael are happy with their evolving business and the success that has come with their offering. “We use local, seasonal ingredients and we work directly with a lot of small producers,” says Pippa. “We are supporting the little guys and doing the right thing.”
Image credit: Bonnie Savage