--- Watch Shane Delia and Haikal bake some of the A1 Bakery favourites in A Middle East Feast, Thursday 5 August at 8.00pm on SBS Food and streaming free on SBS On Demand. ---
It’s Monday at A1 Bakery in Melbourne's Brunswick, and two older gentlemen are having coffee and pastries at a table. They’ve been coming here to meet with friends for around 25 years. These days, they don’t even call each other; they just show up every day, around the same time. At another table, parents with two young children are having a real feast: za'atar pizza, spinach triangles, kafta and more. Next to them, a student quickly rushes past with a falafel wrap.
We could say that the Lebanese bakery is the epicentre of Brunswick, a community hub. “When I was younger, the majority of customers were Lebanese, because other people didn’t know our food as much,” explains manager Haikal Raji (who guest stars in A Middle East Feast with Shane Delia) to SBS Food. “Now, it’s very multicultural. There are lots of Australians, Indians, Chinese, international students … The diversity of people is amazing.”
Raji’s parents, Elias and Nadia Raji Farah, and his aunt and uncle, Nouha and Chafic Choueiri, opened A1 Bakery on Sydney Road in 1992. He was a toddler then, so he can’t really remember a life before A1, or when exactly he started lending a hand. “Mum and dad used to work, so we’d come here with them and help however we could; stocking the shelves, cleaning, doing whatever. Dad didn’t like us sitting down too much; there was always something for us to do,” he says, smiling.
Back then, there was a short menu of Lebanese staples and only a few tables, with most of the space being dedicated to groceries. But with time, the family noticed that most of the customers were coming in to eat, so more tables were added, and the menu expanded.
By 1997, their flatbread was so popular that they had to open a manufacturing plant to meet the hunger of Melburnians. Three franchises have also opened around Melbourne: in Werribee (operated by a cousin), Dandenong and Fairfield.
But the original Brunswick store ran by Haikal and his two brothers, Daniel and Anthony, is still very much a family affair. “I always knew I’d want to help the family. I’d rather work for my family than work for somebody else, that's how I was raised, we like to do things ourselves,” says Raji.
Homemade hand pies filled with shredded haloumi cheese, baked and served warm for a delicious snack or party canape.
Pretty rings of homemade pastry filled with juicy dates, honey and orange blossom water, brushed with a tangy sugar syrup.
Classics like the za'atar pizza and the haloumi pie have been on the menu since day one, but items like sujuk pizza, foul moudammas and fatteh, are newer additions. “We try to introduce new items to keep things exciting, but we don’t want to go off track. I like to keep things traditional. I won’t do smashed avocado, I want to stay authentic,” says Raji.
By 1997, their flatbread was so popular that they had to open a manufacturing plant to meet the hunger of Melburnians.
He’s also adamant about keeping a small grocery section stocked with nuts, cheese, spices, pickles and other ingredients. “We still want to provide what you need to make Lebanese food at home. I don’t want to get rid of the grocery section because a lot of people come here just for that,” he explains.
Shopping and eating at A1 Bakery is incredibly good value, with many dishes and pastries – all made in-house – under $10.
A1 is popular because of the great food, generous portions and good value, but not just that. In a city where there are new openings every day, there’s something special about a place that has been in business for almost 30 years, run by the same family.
“Dad has always been hospitable, he likes to make people feel welcome. We don’t like to be too serious, we’re friendly and we like our customers to feel comfortable,” says Raji.
Whether it’s your first or 100th visit at A1 Bakery, the family has a way of making you feel like a regular.
643-645 Sydney Road, Brunswick, Vic, (03) 9386 0440
Sun-Wed 7 am – 7 pm
Thu–Sat 7 am – 9 pm