Mat Higgins has followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather to continually grow, change and improve his family’s bakery in Shepparton.
As the Shepparton News looks ahead at what 2020 will bring for the region, journalist SHARON WRIGHT met with the man responsible for a team of bakers who start their first shift at 10.30 pm, in readiness for the doors opening at 6.30am.
Just as the bread it produces is a staple of a healthy diet, so too is Higgins Bakery an important ingredient in the commercial history of Shepparton.
Successive generations of the Higgins family have risen well before dawn to bake bread, pies and a never ending assortment of cakes to nourish and treat members of the community since 1947.
Present-day custodian Mat Higgins operates the business with his wife Sally and has followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather to continually grow, change and improve the iconic bakery.
“In business, if you don’t evolve or change, you die,” Mat said.
The story began with Mat’s grandparents Ron and Edna — the couple buying the existing Fryers St bakery where Ron learnt his trade and rebranding it with the family name.
Ron had fulfilled a dream to be his own boss, and that drive has become the family legacy.
Mat started his baking apprenticeship with his parents Morris and Margaret 25 years ago, but it wasn’t long before the unsociable and long hours of a baker’s life led the then 20-year-old to seek out the bright lights of the city.
“I went to Melbourne and worked for a corporate firm for 11 or 12 years,” Mat said.
“After a while I learnt that in a corporate organisation it doesn’t matter how hard you work, or what amount of sales you brought in, you still only get the standard one per cent pay increase and I decided it wasn’t for me.
“I wanted to build something for myself,” he said.
In hindsight Mat’s hiatus from the industry was the catalyst for the evolution of the Higgins Bakery of today, which moved to its present Wyndham St site 37 years ago.
“I lived in Carlton and Fitzroy and worked in South Melbourne for all those years, and every café I went into had this magnificent artisan bread,” Mat said.
“At the time Higgins was purely a pastry bakery; my grandfather had sold the bread side of the business when he retired.
“When I came back to the business 12 years ago there were some big changes to the whole production system and we went from cakes, pies, pasties and sausage rolls to introducing a new artisan bread line.
“I did so much research, we imported a stone oven from Germany, and we were the only bakery in northern Victoria with that style of oven eight years ago.
“The artisan bread is now about 50 per cent of the business.
“We make our own sourdough culture so our bread is unique. I don’t concentrate on what other bakeries are doing, Shepp is a small place and we don’t need to compete against each other, there’s room for each bakery to have their own niche market,” he said.
Higgins Bakery artisan breads, bagels and croissants are on many café and restaurant menus in Shepparton and further afield in Numurkah, Euroa and Avenel.
There’s even demand for the product in Melbourne but at this stage Mat said it’s not practical to service those requests.
His team of bakers start the first shift at 10.30 pm, in readiness for the doors opening at 6.30 am, and often bake through until midday to fill the bakery shelves and wholesale orders.
Early customers include gym-goers calling in for a loaf of bread on the way home from their morning workout, followed by a steady stream of tradies, office workers and retirees filing through the front door to enjoy friendly banter with the staff, share a joke or occasionally their worries.
“There is a great rapport with customers, they become more like family,” Mat said.
“People are becoming more health conscious so we’re always researching and listening to everyone, and then hopefully we make some informed decisions about our future direction,” he said.
The wholesale element is a strong part of the business and Morris and Margaret’s strong connection with local sporting clubs saw that side of the business grow exponentially during their tenure.
Now when you’re craving a winter warmer at the local footy more often than not it will be a Higgins pie served up by the volunteers in the canteen.
Upwards of 2000 pies, and almost as many sausage rolls are baked each week during the five months of the winter sporting calendar — the bakehouse throughput only eclipsed by hot-cross buns at Easter and Christmas puddings, cakes, shortbread and mince pies in December.
In terms of a signature dish, Mat said the bakery was probably best known for its meat pies and the recipe in use today is the original formulation made by his grandfather.
“For Shepp people, a Higgins pie and Mr D’s cola goes hand in hand. About a week ago a lady who lives in Port Douglas but was born here, phoned me. She bought a dozen pies and froze them and got some Mr D’s and took them home to share with a few other former Shepparton families,” Mat said.
Despite challenges such as discounted supermarket bread, soaring electricity prices, increasing costs of flour and meat due to drought and government water policy, Mat remains optimistic about the future.
The bustling Shepparton events timetable and the influx of visitors drawn to the region is one positive and Mat is hopeful it will rain again soon, to turn around the fortunes of the agricultural sector.
“Shepparton isn’t really a tourist town so the ripple effect of these events is tremendous. Council often gets a bad rap but in terms of events, and developing our sporting facilities to accommodate those events, they’ve done an amazing job,” Mat said.