In our first TeaTime story, we meet our WiFBANZ staff writer, Helen Gearing, and are introduced to Renee Searle and the Gerbino family business.

 

Helen’s story

I was 19 years old and elbow-deep in custard when my supervisor came storming down the stairs into the pastry room where I was working. He was followed by a well-aimed bucket that narrowly missed hitting him on the back of his legs. I didn’t dare ask questions but guessed the bucket had been a parting shot from his brother, still upstairs, who he’d been arguing with.

I was two weeks into my pastry apprenticeship at Gerbino’s Pasticceria, an artisan Italian bakery in Brisbane. Mostly, I felt like Charlie—awed by the wonders of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Occasionally, though, I felt like I had been catapulted into a poorly supervised toddler room at a child-care centre.

This was my introduction to the world of pastry. It was also my introduction, as a non-family member employee, into the world of family businesses.

Despite an inauspicious start, when I left Gerbino’s Pasticceria ten years later I deeply missed the whole Gerbino’s scene: customers who had bought gifts for my coming baby, co-workers who had helped me brainstorm names, and a boss who had been, in every way imaginable, unfailingly generous.

In an industry that averages an annual staff turnover rate of 17.9%, Gerbino’s turnover rate averaged 8.1% during my employment there from 2007 to 2017. And while I would love to claim credit for these stats by way of my personal charm and charisma, I’m going to leave it where it belongs: at the feet of my old boss and our first WiFBANZ TeaTime story guest, Renee Searle.

 ***

Beyond the smell of caramel and the bang of bread tins are two sisters: Simone Gerbino and Renee Searle. For today’s TeaTime I interviewed Renee. This is her story.

 

“I was the youngest kid, the third girl after two very strong personalities. I learned to keep my mouth shut and go with the flow. For most of my childhood, Mum and Dad both worked. And with a four-year age gap between Simone and me, Simone was the one making me (or trying to) do my homework, rousing on me when I was hanging out with dumb boys, and generally looking out for me.

Sitting behind a desk was never my thing, though, and after school I got a job at Maccas. Pretty soon afterwards, I found myself managing a store. It was great; I saved a lot of money and after a few years I followed my dream to travel.”

Renee spent the next eight years overseas. She managed a Rastafarian backpackers in Canada before becoming a flight attendant and living in Bahrain and London. And then, in 2002, she got a call from her sister.

While Renee had been overseas Simone had fallen for Salvatore, a handsome Sicilian pastry chef who worked on a cruise ship. They’d married, had two young kids, and were planning on starting a new business in Simone and Renee’s hometown, Brisbane: an Italian-style pasticceria which would offer authentic Sicilian treats.

Simone was all sorts of business-smart, and Salvatore was a pastry maestro. They had a good foundation, but Simone knew they needed someone with exceptional people skills to be the front-facing arm of the business. Someone who was emotionally intelligent enough to put nervous-flyer businessmen at ease, who could manage entitled trust-fund teenagers, and reassure frazzled parents with vomiting toddlers. Someone who would inspire staff and lead by example. Simone needed her little sister.

Renee returned home to join Simone and Salvatore and in 2003 they opened Gerbino’s Pasticceria in leafy New Farm, in Brisbane’s inner-north.

 

Renee returned home to join Simone and Salvatore and in 2003 they opened Gerbino’s Pasticceria in leafy New Farm, in Brisbane’s inner-north.

 

Despite family businesses being a hotbed of family tensions, Renee managed to work through complicated relationships with her own immediate family members and her sister’s Sicilian in-laws.

“Because I lived overseas, away from them for so long, I had to get to know them again. And that was probably a good thing, for us and the business. We saw each other with a fresh perspective. And from the outset we knew our roles: Salvatore had production, Simone had the books, and I had the store spaces.

I think it’s been harder for others in the family. Some of Salvatore’s brothers have never worked anywhere except the family business back in Sicily, and then the new family business here in Brisbane. They don’t really get that some behaviours aren’t ok—you don’t throw buckets at people!

At first, Simone and I were making a lot of things up as we went. When it came to hiring staff for the cafe, I just approached people I knew. A bunch of my mum’s friends had time on their hands and were interested in what we were doing, so at the start our average staff age was probably 55.

We also hired some students. It was a good mix: the nanna’s taught the students a few life lessons—like deodorant is mandatory, not optional—and the students taught the nannas how to actually use their mobiles.”

Other than producing a gang of grandmothers who gained considerable kudos from their grandkids for their texting skills, Renee’s commitment to diversity in her hiring choices had another flow-on effect: after a period of adjustment, staff genuinely loved working at Gerbino’s and stuck around long enough to make deep friendships with each other and with customers and suppliers.

“I think that’s the best thing about having our own business. I’m able to come in, blast disco, and set the whole tone of the place. Customers notice, too, if the staff are happy and engaged.

No-one really wants to buy their croissant, no matter how good it is, from a place where the manager yells at the staff or where the staff look bored, like they’d rather be watching paint dry.”

The business expanded, Gerbino’s Pasticerria moved to a new production base in Ashgrove, and Renee and her family opened another café at QUT Gardens Point. At the time of the QUT store’s opening, Renee had just come out of a long-term relationship.

“You have to be prepared to lose everything—all your savings—before you can really jump in and open a new hospitality business. Once you are ok with the worst that might happen, you can move forward.

 

The business expanded. Gerbino’s Pasticerria moved to a new production base in Ashgrove, and Renee and her family opened another café at QUT Gardens Point.

 

By the time the QUT store opened, I had already lost a lot in my personal life. And I had survived. I knew I would still be ok, mentally, if I also lost everything financially.”

While Renee likes to downplay how much Gerbino’s means to the community it has become entrenched in, half of the kids in Brisbane’s inner-north have had their birthday cake made by Sal and his brothers. And other kids all over Brisbane have grown up remembering Gerbino’s cannoli as the highlight of being dragged to the Good Food and Wine Expo by their foodie parents.

“I’ll be on the bus coming back to Ashgrove from the QUT store and hear someone complain that there’s never any parking available on their street, because of our bakery! At those times I just sink into my seat and hope I’m not recognised.”

Renee’s youngest niece, whose birth coincided with the opening of the second store and who spent her first few weeks in a basket on the countertop charming customers, is now fourteen and spends her weekends working at a nearby crêpe shop. Renee is glad her niece has had the chance to work outside the family business.

“I think it’s good they don’t work here for a bit. It gives them a chance to work out their own identity, and if they come back, then I think it will be easier for them.”

•••

As Renee and I finish our interview at a table outside the Ashgrove store, I see her smile and flip the bird to the young man who is taking away our cups and plates. She laughs at my surprise and explains that it is Paolo, her eldest nephew, all grown up.

“That’s just the family wave,” Renee says to me, reassuringly. Paolo shakes his head, smiles, and walks inside.

•••

Renee Searle is an entrepreneur, businessowner, and self-confessed cheese snob. She and her family own and manage the Gerbino’s Pasticcerias at Ashgrove and QUT Gardens Point and have been responsible for Brisbane residents needing to loosen their belts since 2003.

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