MARIETTA — Ask Mark Allen why he decided to open the Australian Bakery Cafe 20 years ago with his lifelong mate Neville Steel, and he’ll tell you candidly, in a thick Aussie accent.
“Because there wasn’t one in the county, in the U.S.A. Period. There was not one,” he said.
The bakery, which opened in its original location on Marietta Square in December 2000, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary with specials and giveaways for customers.
Today, the Australian Bakery Cafe has extended beyond the charm of a local restaurant sitting in historic Marietta. The bakery has served the likes of Russell Hitchcock of the Australian rock duo Air Supply, Australian Olympians, and even catered to the White House when a member of the Commonwealth is entertained, according to Allen. The owners have made appearances on talk shows and cooking shows. They’ve earned the highest praise for their traditional Australian meat pies, available in more than 27 variations and made in quantities of 3,000 to 4,000 daily. They were even voted one of the top five best fish and chips in Atlanta by readers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Their success has inspired copycats, other Australian bakeries that don’t quite pass the benchmark set by the Marietta staple, their customers say, and a cult following among their patrons.
The bakery started off with humble beginnings and was born out of friendship.
Allen and his business partner, Steel, were born in the same hospital just three weeks apart in Boort, a town of 400 nestled in the Australian outback, more than 155 miles from Melbourne. The two lost touch when Steel’s father sold the family bakery and moved the family to Berriwillock, Australia.
The duo rekindled their friendship in trade school, Allen recalled, when they realized they knew each other during the first day of rollcall at the William Angliss Food College in Melbourne. Steel, who is a third generation master baker, and Allen, who successfully trained as an apprentice at the Boort bakery previously owned by the Steel family, decided to partner with another business friend. They opened a “rock and roll”-esque American restaurant in the Australian country town of Bendigo.
“I can trust him, he can trust me,” Allen said of Steel.
They sold the restaurant in a matter of weeks after opening. Allen and Steel then decided to set their sights on America and introduce their beloved meat pies to the U.S. audience. Allen first came to the United States in 1990 for a sports car manufacturing business he had opened in Marietta. The self-professed hot rod fanatic said he had quite the culture shock when he came to America.
“There’s a reason everyone wants to come here,” Allen said. “This is the best country in the world.”
The pair opened the Australian Bakery Cafe, the first authentic Australian bakery in the U.S., in a pre-Civil War era building on the Square where it has operated ever since.
“New York had more people than our whole country,” Allen said, when asked why there hadn’t been an Australian bakery in the U.S. before. “But our countries are the same size.”
Australia has a population of about 19 million. For perspective, there are more than 33 million people in California.
Though he’s traveled back to the homeland several times, Allen said he wouldn’t return to live in Australia and is committed to staying in the U.S.
“I do miss it, but I do like my lifestyle for business, and it’s what I’m here for, and I’ve established myself really well,” he said. “So has my partner, Neville.”
A dedication to authenticity, which attracts foreigners and citizens of the Commonwealth alike, keeping them coming back for more, is the secret in the sauce, he said.
“A lot of people loved what we’re doing, a lot of people related to us,” he said. “Australia is very close to the U.S.”
Paul Peek, an operations manager who recently moved to the area from Arkansas, stopped by the bakery on a cold December afternoon after exploring wedding venues. He ordered a steak and mushroom meat pie and said he would undoubtedly return.
“I’ve never had one, and it’s delicious,” he said.
Sherry Jackson, a manager who has worked in the bakery for more than three years, said working with Allen, Steel and the crew was the best job she’s ever had. Her favorite part of the work is talking to the strangers who walk through the door, telling tales of their travels in foreign lands.
“There’s a whole lot of people who come here, from everywhere,” she said.
Despite the challenging environment the pandemic created for the restaurant business — first with closures, then supply chain issues and food shortages to a labor shortage — Allen said the Australian Bakery Cafe performed better than ever under the pressure. Allen credits the bakery’s standing business model of shipping their meat pies and other Australian delicacies across the 50 states for their survival. As the first Australian bakery in the U.S., the Marietta restaurant has relied on shipping food orders across the country since its inception.
“I think it’s quite simple, really. Good quality product, quality service and adapting to the people’s needs,” he said.
Allen said the bakery was closed for a week during the start of the pandemic not due to uncertainty, but because of the endless orders they had received online for their meat pies.
“We had to, because we couldn’t keep up with production of making meat pies for the front and for shipping out, so we had to close down and just kept our focus on shipping out pies,” he said.
As for the future, Allen said he looks forward to serving locals ranging from his own country to Marietta. The looks on the faces of those who miss home and regain a sense of nostalgia in the bakery is worth 20 years of work, he said.
“You never know who’s going to walk through that front door.”