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The Life Interview with Dean Brettschneider: Baker on the rise

Since 2012, Baker & Cook founder Dean Brettschneider has rapidly opened seven bakeries, two pizzerias and a culinary school in Singapore

New Zealand baker Dean Brettschneider had no doubt from the beginning that his bakery in Singapore, Baker & Cook, would succeed.

His confidence was based not just on the taste of the variety of baked goods it offered - from Australian lamingtons and German volkorn bread to Italian bomboloni doughnuts and English scones - but also on his carefully crafted reputation as a "global baker".

Without bravado or pride in his voice, the 47-year-old says: "I was really confident about success because I had a brand behind Baker & Cook and that is Global Baker Dean Brettschneider."

The personal epithet has been his identity since 2005, after an acquaintance used it to describe his business involvements around the world as a baking consultant, cookbook author and culinary judge on television.

So although he never owned a global bakery chain before Baker & Cook - he had one store in Dunedin, New Zealand, in the early 1990s and helped to set up the popular Baker & Spice chain in Shanghai in the late 2000s - he was sure his business in Singapore would take off, based on his brand and business savvy.

"It's not just about doing great breads," he says. "There's lots of great stuff around the world and in Singapore. But we've got the healthy mix of what makes it accessible and affordable every day - it's what you need to be in the neighbourhood."

And he has proved he is worth his salt.

My view is that 50 per cent of Baker & Cook's success lies in its food offering and the other 50 per cent is the design of the stores, the vibe, the staff and the customers.

BAKER-ENTREPRENEUR DEAN BRETTSCHNEIDER on the success of his bakery chain, Baker & Cook

Since 2012, he has opened seven Baker & Cook stores, two Plank pizzerias and a culinary school in mostly residential neighbourhoods such as Bukit Timah and Opera Estate, where customers cannot get enough of his best-selling carrot cake ($5.20 a slice) and volkorn loaf ($7.90) - baked goods studded with nuts and grains that appeal to his Singapore customers who want healthier breakfast options and treats.

Eight of these stores opened in a span of 18 months from last year to this July, despite a sluggish economic climate. They were funded wholly by profits from the business, which average 20 per cent before tax.

Come December, Baker & Cook will take its first step overseas with a franchise in Manila.

He is unfazed by the business' swift expansion in the same way that he expects a mixture of flour, water and yeast to rise in the oven.

What surprised him, rather, was the untapped potential for a bakery in the laid-back Hillcrest area off Dunearn Road when he came upon the place in 2011.

He had found himself there after a 5am, 180km cycle around the island, the morning after he stopped over in Singapore from Denmark, on his way to New Zealand.

He lives in Denmark with his Danish wife, Vibeke, 46, who works in insurance, and he has a son, Jason, 20, from an earlier marriage in New Zealand.

It was Mr Brettschneider's first trip to Singapore and he was visiting a friend, a fellow cycling enthusiast who lived in the Hillcrest area.

The lack of a bakery-cafe in the neighbourhood left him ravenous for a bite after the ride and also hungry to open a shop there.

The casual business idea grew on him as he talked about it over dinner at a pizzeria in Hillcrest with his friend and another acquaintance, also a resident in the area; both of them seconded his idea.

On their way home after dinner, they passed by an old furniture shop in Hillcrest Road and Mr Brettschneider told the other two, who work in shipping: "If you can get that corner shop, then why don't we put a bakery there?"

He says: "If I were Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf or Starbucks or Costa, I would analyse it and over-analyse it and research it and count how many cars go past.

"But as an entrepreneur, you exercise gut feel and common sense. I just looked around and thought, 'Wow, how can there not be an opportunity here?'"

Three months later, they took over the furniture shop and made it the flagship of Baker & Cook.

Indeed, Mr Brettschneider is one who chases opportunities and his journey as a baker began when he seized the chance to apprentice, as a teenager, at the award-winning Rangiora Bakery in New Zealand.

He grew up in a farming community in New Zealand - his father worked in the meat business, his mother in machinery and his older brother is a butcher - and cooking was a part of family life, which he enjoyed.

He was the only male student in home economics class in school and when he was offered a baking apprenticeship, he grabbed the chance.

Later, he travelled to Europe to hone his baking skills, doing internships in the kitchens of various establishments, from supermarkets to hotels to artisan bakeries, for three years.

Eager to put what he learnt into practice, he returned to New Zealand and ran a bakery in Dunedin for three years before taking up a job offer with a baking ingredient company as a manager overseeing areas such as product development, customer service and sales.

He says: "Even then, I was known in the industry for being a bit of a maverick and the company brought me in to raise the profile of its business."

It was there that he learnt about the importance of marketing and authored his first cookbook, The New Zealand Baker (2000), which opened the doors for him to star in food programmes on a New Zealand television channel and publish 11 other cookbooks.

Going beyond bread and butter

On whether he encountered any failures along the way, his answer is a swift "No". It is a question others have asked him before.

"What's your biggest failure - making a cake or something, some people ask. I say I have no idea. Even failed cakes are not failures to me, they're just experiences."

He concedes that his belief in himself has, at times, rubbed others the wrong way.

"People would sometimes say, 'That Dean guy is a bit arrogant' and maybe in my younger days, yes. But I think some people confuse arrogance with confidence," he says plainly. "I think I'm very confident and that's partly the reason for my success."

That self-belief helped him "box on", he says, when it took almost six months for the first Baker & Cook to open due to delays caused by the extensive renovation required. When it finally opened, the overwhelming response from customers was a validation.

"As soon as we made something, we were selling out of it," he says, adding that things sometimes got so busy he would sleep on the floor of the office rather than commute to and from work.

Landlords in the city also came knocking on his door, keen for him to open downtown, but he was not interested.

He says: "I wanted to do neighbourhoods only because the rent in the city is too expensive for a low-value product and people don't go to the city to buy a nice loaf of sourdough bread."

The exceptions are his store at the InterContinental Singapore hotel in Bugis and the takeaway kiosk at Holiday Inn Express Singapore Clarke Quay. Both hotels are under the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), which he consults for.

He says candidly: "Are we looking at putting Baker & Cook in other IHG hotels around the world? Yes. So it was important for me to establish it here where we have control, where we have a presence and where we have the relationships."

Similarly, he launched Plank, a pizzeria specialising in sourdough pizza, last year because of the opportunity to open in Opera Estate. The location, nestled in a residential area, was ideal, but the shop space was too big for a Baker & Cook alone, so he came up with the idea of having an adjoining pizzeria.

He says: "For me, pizza is just really good bread with stuff on top and we know sourdough because of Baker & Cook."

As the business grew, he gained new partners. He remains the majority shareholder and he has three other partners - two investment companies, Commonwealth Capital from Singapore and Richardson Capital from the United Kingdom, and Mr Anders Boye, who works in a shipbroking firm and helped to open Baker & Cook in the beginning.

The group managing director of Commonwealth Capital, Mr Andrew Kwan, 50, says he was introduced to Mr Brettschneider through a mutual friend and he was impressed with how the baker was "a thorough professional".

"He is very capable in his domain and he is not just a celebrity chef by name. Despite his standing in the industry, he still pops into the bakery and works alongside his staff."

The growing number of stores has made it difficult for Mr Brettschneider to bake much, except when he teaches at the baking and cooking school he opened in April in Greendale Avenue.

Still, he continues to help in the bakery when he can. Baker & Cook's senior outlet manager Che-Ann De Leon, 40, says he clears the tables and does the dishes when the store is short-handed.

"He's a hands-on guy. He doesn't just tell us what to do; he works with us and sets an example," she says.

He is so committed to the business and his team that he cancelled his 47th birthday celebrations in Denmark in April to help out at the newly opened school.

"The school was going so well and my team was under a lot of pressure and so was I, so I decided to cancel my flight home," he says. "It's not right if I just waltzed out of there because I have a birthday celebration and things were booked."

Does he ever take a day off?

"No. I can say that today, speaking to you, is a day off, but my mind's constantly moving, thinking," he says.

When he is less busy, which is on weekends when he has no business meetings lined up, he tries to visit the stores in person - "yes, still working" - as well as hit the gym or go for a run.

With 10 outlets open here now, he spends up to three weeks a month in Singapore and, when he is not around, he keeps track of things at the stores via closed circuit television, which he accesses on his smartphone.

These days, he is busy with the opening in Manila, an upcoming Baker & Cook cookbook and his first acting role in a Singapore television drama where he plays himself in the part of a mentor figure to the show's protagonist, a baker-wannabe.

He says: "Do I have to do the TV show? No. Do I have to open in Manila? No. But they are all part of the puzzle that is life and I like to think I'm doing things that have some sort of connection to things that will happen later on in my life."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2016, with the headline 'Baker on the rise'. Print Edition | Subscribe