Alan Baxter and Renee Hope of Side-on

Is it irony that Alan Baxter and his partner Renee Hope called their Dunedin café and bakery Side-on? The name is a reference to an obscure song by indie band The Clean – and to the way Kiwis tend to tackle a challenge or issue obliquely. But Alan and Renee have plunged head-first into the hospitality fray, growing in leaps and bounds since their establishment opened almost two years ago. “Where we are in lower Moray Place is the sunny side of the street, but the building we occupy was empty for five years before we got here. It took a long time for people to walk down and discover us,” says Alan.

Perhaps the Side-on moniker alludes to the way the business has taken off at a tangent? It started as a café with the bakery almost a side hustle. Then the sourdough lured in customers, the cardamom buns became a hit and, before long, they were ordering a $30,000 oven. It was delivered the first day of level-4 lockdown.

The couple didn’t initially train in the food industry. Alan studied industrial design and Renee fine art before they veered into culinary arts at Otago Polytechnic. Five years in Melbourne followed where Alan worked part time in the pastry section of the kitchens at The Town Mouse. “I gravitated towards making bread and it became an obsession,” he says. That may be so, but he doesn’t subscribe to the reverence given ancient sourdough starters. “That’s a romantic idea but a starter is only as good as you treat it in the last 24 hours. We feed ours morning and night; we’re vigilant.”

The pair start work at 5am – Alan to bake, Renee to complete the admin before she moves to the barista station and front of house. They used their skills in art and design to renovate the two-storey building, completing the work themselves. It took six months to construct walls, doors and cabinetry, fashion benchtops from compressed concrete sheet, and top the tables in ply. Then they painted the wall by the espresso machine the palest pink. “It was a bit of a scramble to open. We spent so much time on the modifications that we hadn’t finalised what we were going to serve,” says Alan.

Despite being in a quieter quarter of the city, the olfactory attributes of beans and bread attracted an audience.  Alongside the rustic loaves, buttery croissants and hand- rolled dark-crust baguettes, the sweet treats in the cabinet evolve according to whim and what’s available.

Alan swears by the hand-milled flour from the Farmers Mill cooperative near Timaru and, if some unusual produce comes on stream at the markets, he will snap it up. In comparison to Melbourne, fresh produce is limited, so the team works pre-emptively pickling, preserving and stashing away the good stuff in a cool room for later use.

Organic pluots (the plum/apricot hybrid) from Earnscleugh Orchard, available for a few short weeks, are a perfect addition to the offerings. “They have the sourness of a plum but the texture of an apricot, so poach really well but hold a nice tart flavour,” says Alan. In all their bakes they try to “rein in the sugar” – for taste, not health.

Alan will soon be able to step away from the coalface to work on steering Side-on… forward. Although finding good staff has been a challenge, they are now a 10-strong team, and he and Renee can focus on what’s next. “Eventually we want to start trading at night since my background is in wine-bar food,” Alan explains. Whichever way they approach this new direction, we’re sure they’ll get there in good time. CLAIRE MCCALL



40 mins plus 2½ hrs rising time if using croissant dough