max tobias | the dusty knuckle

After starting life in a shipping container in Hackney, The Dusty Knuckle Bakery has grown into a permanent space in Dalston, complete with a cafe, a brunch menu and a youth employment programme. Co-founder Max Tobias tells us what it’s really like to bake bread out of a 40ft steel box…

Where do you live in London and what do you like about the area?

I’ve just moved to Green Lanes. Loving the busy-ness of it, and the fact that there’s families everywhere. Also you can get a fresh made spinach gozleme for like £2.50 which I probably feed my kids too much of. Just down the road you’ve got Newington Green Veg as well, which is where we get all our fresh produce for the bakery from. They inspire us a lot down there. Very tight ship they’re running and always fresh and fully stocked and on point. In a previous lifetime the word ‘business’ meant something so different to me than what it means now. I always imagined grey carpets, overweight white men…it’s actually this vibrant, very busy little word in my mind now and I love how London is home to such a massive array of different people grafting away in so many different ways.

How did The Dusty Knuckle come into being?

We got obsessive about bread and busy figuring out how to make a lot of it without spending any money. We borrowed a restaurant oven to get started one day per week, then spent three years in a cramped and leaky shipping container. Slowly but surely we refined what we were doing and tried to maintain quality and service as our key focus. We were prepared to put the graft in – it was tough. Eventually we couldn’t take it any more in the container and we took a risk, moved into a bigger site and got cracking with a new cafe. It’s just been a case of trying to stay happy – whatever that takes – and keep grafting.

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You’ve recently added a bit of extra space to the bakery, what are the pros and cons of working out of a shipping container?

Pros – it was cheap. It made us technically better bakers because we were constantly dealing with swinging temps and humidity and having to maintain a consistent product regardless. With natural fermentation that’s not easy. It was eye catching and made people ask questions. It made the proper bricks-and-mortar site taste that bit sweeter once we moved. It improved our DIY skills because things broke constantly!

Cons – it was grimy and hard to keep clean. It was freezing or boiling, rarely ever in between. It was cramped and made production much harder than it needs to be. It leaked all the time and constantly gave us bizarre and ridiculous problems to solve – drainage, water, power supply, the lot.

The education and work experience programme is such a great aspect of the business – what inspired you to start these and what is it that young people learn from baking to help them gain employment?

I worked with hard-to-reach and troubled young people for 10 years before starting the bakery. In that time I became convinced that employment – and ultimately, being in a position to be able to take responsibility for yourself and earn legitimate money – was key to taking people out of unfulfilling and antisocial lifestyles. I wanted to develop a more sustainable model of impact for youth that was based on a reciprocal relationship between mentor/employer and young person/beneficiary – rather than a more traditional one-way model in which young people are advised/given help but not necessarily expected to work or make changes to continue receiving the help.

We are in very early stages with this part of our enterprise. We decided in year two that we needed to focus all our energy on staying afloat and getting into a proper production site to give us a proper chance at making something of ourselves and building something with real foundations. Now that we’ve done that, we’re excited to return to the meat and bones of trying to help younger people in need.

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Describe your perfect day in London.

Kids sleep in late, family breakfast of something special – usually egg based, sometimes sweet and pancakey. A bit of DIY round the house, chill at the park with friends and lots of alcohol, trying not to check my phone with music turned up loud. A bit of football maybe. It’s nice to get lost in the Heath and find a spot that feels wild. Viccy Park’s a good one too – cheese and wine on a pedalo, a wander down Regents Canal. I’ve also gotta shout out our landlord, Bootstrap Company, who work hard to try and keep an interesting and not just purely corporate mix of people in Dalston – their roof bar in the summer is pretty hard to beat!

Abbot St, London E8 3DP