Bakery slices family ties
Shop sale ends decades of ownership but legacy stirs on
It’s how you know you are from Hastings.
If a certain mechanical man conjures up memories of childhood, or of stopping with mesmerised children to watch him stirring with a smile, then chances are you hail from this town.
“He’s part of the furniture really and he’s just kept on stirring.” Robyn Warren said – much like Mr Warren.
With nearly four decades at the bakery, Malcolm Warren has been baking for almost as long as that little man in the window.
For 38 years he has risen before dawn to do what three generations of his family have done before him – first as a 15-year old who iced the buns and creamed the doughnuts before school, then as an apprentice pastry cook before becoming the owner in 1987.
But soon the era that has spanned three centuries will come to an end, Warren’s Bakery has hit the property market.
It all started in 1891 when Malcolm’s great-grandfather, Robert Warren, built the first Warren’s bakery on the site where the Havelock North Postshop now sits on Napier Rd.
The entrepreneur of his era soon expanded with bakeries, shops and tearooms throughout Hastings and a catering business with his teams of horse drawn carts. The first motorised delivery van also became a familiar sight around the district.
When Robert Warren died, his wife, Alice, continued running the business until their daughter, Pearl, began operating it as the Cake Kitchen on Russell St in 1941. After 26 years, Pearl’s niece, Velma Warren, was next in line to carry on the family tradition, and when she handed it over to Malcolm after 20 years it looked like the business had become a permanent fixture in Hastings.
It led the Hawke’s Bay Herald Tribune to reminisce in 1994 of the days of horse and cart deliveries, the sight of “Jacko” the faithful monkey on Robert’s shoulders and the taste of fresh-baked bread from the woodshaving-fuelled ovens. Those days had gone, the article said, but the sight of Warren’s Cake Kitchen’s freshly baked goods would never be a thing of the past.
Sadly, the writer may be proved wrong, because as soon as Malcolm and Robyn find a suitable buyer they will be selling their Russell St bakery along with the family history.
For Mrs Warren, who over the years has collected her husband’s family history, it’s a sad time, but for Mr Warren a sleep-in couldn’t come soon enough.
“That’s possibly the hardest part of being a baker,” he said.
He has always cycled to work, probably an attempt to wake himself up when putting the alarm clock in a kerosene tin proved unpopular with the rest of his family.
In its glory days, Warren’s Cake Kitchen, as Mr Warren renamed it, was the only bakery in the immediate area of town.
It had the custom of those who worked at Bon Marche, Westermans and the old Post Office (where the Hastings Health Centre is now located) until the face of Hastings changed and more eateries filled the CBD.
By the start of the millennium cafe culture had well and truly hit Hastings, though by this time the shop had another name change back to the original Warren’s Bakery. Also, the wall dividing it from the neighbouring barber shop was demolished so customers could sit in to eat their paninis and drink their flat whites.
For Mr Warren’s uncle though, the early mornings came a bit easier.
John Brannigan, a carpenter, and wife Velma were asked if they would take over the bakery, and for Mr Brannigan the warm bakehouse was a welcome change to braving Hawke’s Bay’s winters.
John remembers Aunt Pearl asking if he and Velma, who like Malcolm had started at the bakery at the age of 15, would become the next owners.
“We haven’t looked back have we darling?” he said fondly to Mrs Brannigan.
Milestones have stuck in her mind and Mrs Brannigan remembers standing in The Cake Kitchen watching the “troop trains” leaving from the railway station across the street.
“That was quite a distressing time. They would go past in the train, waving out to you, off to the war,” she said.
And Mr Warren remembers making hot cross buns through the night as the Easter sinking of the Wahine came over the airwaves in 1968.
But then there were the amazing times, and Mrs Brannigan recalls the days when the small cake shop was feeding the town.
“The shop was packed to the wall with people wanting their buns and scones hot from the ovens,” Mrs Brannigan said.
Nowadays though, it’s their custard squares that Warren’s Bakery is known for.
“People come from everywhere saying ‘we’ve heard about your custard squares’,” Mr. Warren said.
Ex-pat Kiwis, former staff and students make a point of calling in while back on their holidays to pick up one of the custard squares that were named the region’s best by Bay City Radio in the ‘90s.
The secret, Mr Warren says, has been making his own special pastry and avoiding the type of custard other bakeries tend to choose, the type that gets rubbery the longer it sits on the shelf.
However, in the 60’s and ‘70s it was cream cakes and sponges that people wanted.
Some days the Brannigans would run out and have to cream one of their most popular items – the ginger gem.
But now the Warren’s biggest sale, that of the family business, is unlikely to go ahead until the right person comes along – someone who is ready to embrace the history of the shop and continue the passion for quality food in the Spanish Mission-style earthquake survivor.
There’s always been the hope that one of the next generation would step up and say “its my turn now”, but none have chosen to follow in the family’s footsteps.
For Mrs Brannigan it’s a sad reality.
“It’s been in my blood for years so I can’t help feeling a little bit sad, but it had to happen at some point and I’m so proud of Malcolm and Robyn,” Mrs Brannigan said.
And as Mrs Warren says “there’s a lot of history here that needs to be kept alive and this shop belongs to the town. So many people identify with it”.
Whether that little mechanical man stays is still to be decided.
“I would rather he wasn’t sold with the shop, but Malcolm says he should because he belongs here,” Mrs Warren said.
So he could just be stirring with a smile for a long time yet. He just won’t have Mr Warren there to keep him company in the early morning anymore.
“I’m dreaming of the day when I can put my alarm clock through the pastry roller,” he said.
Photo captions –
ROLLING OUT: Velma and John Brannigan (left) passed the bakery down to their nephew Malcolm Warren and his wife Robyn. PICTURE / GLENN TAYLOR HBT091063-01
WHAT THEY DO BEST: Warren’s Bakery’s custard squares are world famous.
THAT MECHANICAL MAN: He’s part of Hastings.
1913: Robert Warren with pet monkey sits on top if his delivery vehicle at the Hastings Showgrounds. PICTURE/WARREN’S BAKERY
1971: Nigel Warren, aged 73, with his daughter Velma Brannigan and grandson Malcolm Warren. Velma was then the pastry cook and owner of The Cake Kitchen. Nigel was the baker, and Malcolm his apprentice.
1993: Warren’s Cake Kitchen, looking north along Russell Street, Hastings, then owned by Malcolm Warren, great-grandson of founder Robert Warren.