Planning a wedding, a career change, starting a business, starting a family, renovating a house, expanding the business – sounds like the work of a decade. But for Kaveh Akbari and his wife Carla, that’s just the past four years – oh yeah, and throw in the pandemic too.
Despite all the chaos, they’ve managed to establish one of Wollongong’s best bakeries and cafes, in a market where the standards are high and the competition is tough.
In 2019 the couple were working as academics and writers in Sydney, and planned to move to the Illawarra after they got married.
Everything seemed to be falling into place when they were able to settle on a home shortly after their wedding in June.
“The South Coast is our favourite place in NSW,” Kaveh said.
“The plan was to set up a small bakery for Carla to run and I would pursue post-graduate research, and help with the cafe.”
“So from June to December 2019 we got married, settled on a house started to renovate, moved out of our home in Sydney and stayed with parents, sold our business in Sydney, set up and opened a bakery in Wollongong and had a baby girl, Royaa.
“I say we, but with Carla being pregnant and giving birth in the middle of all this, I was a one-man team on the projects and Carla had to do a lot of the post-birth stuff without me.
“It was a lot of pressure and truly tested us.”
The couple let out a big sigh of relief when January 2020 rolled around … and then, in March, pandemic lockdowns began.
It was the start of three tough years, with Carla and Kaveh working around the clock to keep their business afloat – and raise their daughter.
“Because we were new to the area – and to parenthood – we had no idea how difficult it was to get daycare,” Kaveh said.
“We became known as ‘the cafe with the baby’ because I was carrying my little one in a pouch while I made coffee for a year.
“For all its difficulties, it was actually a beautiful experience; we met the most humane side of our customers.
“They would come in and take care of her for a bit while we had a rest from carrying her, we had people offer to babysit and much more.”
Optimistic that the worst was over after the first lockdown, the couple opened an additional kiosk in Shellharbour to try and increase their income.
Then the next lockdown hit, and they were faced with the loss of all their hard work overnight.
“My wife initiated next day deliveries as a response to the loss, we had to make something happen or we’d also have to close the Wollongong cafe,” Kaveh said.
“We focused all our effort on deliveries and the Wollongong location throughout the second lockdown and managed to really reach customers from the greater Illawarra.
“We offered next day deliveries from Stanwell Park to Shell Cove and it was received really well by the community.
“This had a dual benefit as we were also marketing our brand through the process, so as a result of the deliveries, our Wollongong store also picked up, and we got a little bit of breathing space.”
Curious about the delicious treats that kept them going? Carla’s father owns iconic Alexander’s bakery in Rockdale.
He’s been making bureks for 40 years, and owned his own bakery for 25 – and this journalist can confirm, the offerings at Alexander’s Wollongong are delicious enough to keep any business afloat during the most trying times.
The boutique bakery combines traditional Macedonian pastries with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavours, as well as some modern twists, like Nutella-filled donuts and baklava.
Bureks, focaccias, croissants and baklava are all made by the family and, along with the excellent coffee, make it well-worth a visit.
“We would drive up to Rockdale every morning at 3 am and drive back – we did over 80,000km of driving in one year,” Kaveh said.
“We struggled with that so decided to open our own production place on a budget, saved for another year and found a little shop in Corrimal that previously did food and started doing our production there.”
This was not to be the final hurdle for Kaveh and Carla to overcome, however.
A few months later, the war in Ukraine started – increasing the price of essential ingredients, like flour, by up to 300 per cent.
The determined duo didn’t let this obstacle deter them either.
“We saved for six months to fit out the front as a grab-and-go, then the botched UCI bike race happened.”
The race, which was expected to bring 300,ooo visitors to the region, ended up causing traffic headaches and actually reduced trade by as much as 50 per cent for some businesses.
So Kaveh got on the tools and did the fit out himself, eventually opening their grab-and-go location in Corrimal in February.
The couple have plenty of reasons to be proud of their resilient little bakery, despite the challenges.
“The hospitality is the most rewarding part,” Kaveh said.
“Serving the community, getting to know them, and being a part of it, feeling welcomed into it – there’s nothing more rewarding than that.
“I love the Illawarra, it’s a special place and the ability to provide a service for the area enhances that sense of love and belonging.”
And they haven’t lost their ambition. The couple still hope to move into a bigger production space in future.
But they don’t just want to expand the business – they hope to grow it into something a bit different.
“I would love to open the business up to becoming a collective – where the workers have a share in the business,” Kaveh said.
“Our people make the business. Without those who give their times and effort to the business we’d be nothing, so I’d like to put in a formula so every long term worker becomes a part-owner in the business.
“It’s something that I have to work on meticulously to get right – it is however completely doable, and I’m not afraid of taking on that challenge, given the right circumstances and opportunity.”