We kick off our Institutions of Brunswick series with arguably the most well-known business on Sydney Road.
It’s hard to imagine a time when there would have been any kind of gap in Melbourne’s food market. It seems that every cafe and restaurant that could exist here does already, or has gone before.
But the idea to open a big Lebanese bakery and grocer on Sydney Road was novel in the early 1990s. There was a pita factory down the street and a smaller bakery where two brothers-in-law Elias Raji and Chafic Choueiri were employed after migrating from Lebanon in 1987. Brunswick’s Lebanese community wasn’t quite as big then as it is now. Elias and Chafic, together with their wives Nadia and Nouha, took the chance to open their own venture with A1 Bakery in 1992. They settled on 643-645 Sydney Road: the same building where A1 stands almost 30 years later.
On a rainy Monday morning, we sat down for a tea at A1 to reflect on its history with Haikal Raji—Elias and Nadia’s son and one successor to the family business.
“When they came to this building, they just felt comfortable and they knew that they could do really well here,” Haikal tells Brunswick Daily. “It’s always about feeling for us. If we don’t feel comfortable, then we won’t try to do something.“
After picking their location, the owners kicked off A1 with a simple menu of around 10 pastries and a grocery section. It was much like the bakeries you’d find open everywhere for breakfast in Lebanon, each selling their unique takes on cheese pies, za’atar and meat pizzas scooped fresh from a dome oven. At first, A1 customers were mostly local Lebanese folk eager for a taste of home, but soon enough the wider community got wind of their delicious breads, and ate them for all meals of the day.
Haikal and his twin brothers Anthony and Daniel were just toddlers running around the tables back then. Their high school nights spent (begrudgingly) behind the counter prepared them to take over the family business.
Haikal and his twin brothers Anthony and Daniel
Over the course of our chat, several regulars interrupt to say hello to Haikal. Although Mondays are distinctly slower than weekends—where queues of people wait for their numbers to be yelled out—A1 still sells an average of about 500 orders each weekday.
“If it wasn’t for support and local community and loyal customers, we wouldn’t be as successful,” says Haikal.
It’s no coincidence that people feel such a connection to this place, they wear A1 merch. Besides a slightly expanded menu, more tables and a new generation of Rajis in charge, A1 has stayed the same. Authenticity is their ethos, and they don’t mind if your kids make a mess. Haikal wants customers to feel at home: “We don’t want people to come in and feel like they can’t be themselves or just, you know, sit down and relax and take their time.”
A1 merch – T-shirts, hats and beanies
Sydney Road has changed a lot around A1, though. Haikal laments that the surrounding businesses aren’t thriving like they used to. The famous chicken shop and fruit store next door are closed, and the Brunswick market has fewer vendors. More apartments are going up and the roads are busier, while some of the old establishments aren’t surviving. A1 is a respite from all of this development.
“We try to stay the same so when people do come back here they’re like this place hasn’t changed at all,” Haikal says.
Minor expansions are always in the back of the Rajis’ minds, however, and there are already three independent A1 Bakery branches in Dandenong, Werribee and Fairfield. The Brunswick team even launched a new blue food truck this year, which took off in the wake of the city’s major lockdowns (and is now temporarily standing by for lockdown 4.0). The truck allows staff to keep food preparation and quality control in-house, then spread the joy for A1 all over the city.
If you’re lucky enough to be trying their food for the first time, Haikal says you can’t go past a halloumi cheese pie. But there’s something for everyone at A1, including vegan options, homemade falafels, baklava, coffee, crunchy pickled turnips and the creamiest hummus in town.