A suspicious fire over the weekend has ripped the heart out of a number of small business operators, including one family which has run its renowned bakery for more than three decades.
Ballarat crime investigation unit detectives are looking into the fire at the Midvale Shopping Centre, Mount Clear, on Saturday. Emergency services received reports of a fire in a tobacco shop about 10.40pm. That store, which was closed at the time, sustained extensive damage during the blaze.
The pungent stench of the fire was still evident on Monday morning as police tape cordoned off the affected shop fronts.
The iconic Stewart's Bakery was badly damaged by the disaster and could be out of commission for more than six months, a huge blow to the Stewart family, coming up to its 33rd year in the game, and its staff.
Victoria Stewart, daughter of proud owners Marg and Noel Stewart, was unable to conceal her emotion when she outlined the impact on the Stewarts and their employees.
"The family's devastated," Ms Stewart said.
"Mum and dad took a big chance when they were only young in their late 20s, early 30s. They've put everything into this, not just financially, but their heart and their soul. It isn't very common these days to find someone as passionate about their workplace. Dad spends nearly 16 hours a day here.
"(For) our staff, this is their home away from home. They give it their all."
There has been an outpouring of support from those for whom the bakery's sweet and savoury treats have become a constant fixture of their lives.
"We've had people commenting on our Facebook page, 'I've been going there since Grade 2'," Ms Stewart said.
"We had people coming past crying yesterday saying, 'My kids come here everyday for school lunch'."
The traditional bakery, having carried an immense burden due to the global pandemic, has now received another ruthless blow beyond the control of the industrious figures behind it.
"We're going into our busiest season," Ms Stewart said.
"Schools are opening up; footy's beginning; the colder months are coming. We were meant to be supplying the swap meet; that's our biggest event. We were so excited, having missed out last year. We were hoping that 2022 was going to be our better year."
Manager of five years, Samantha Evans, struggled to comprehend events.
"I honestly feel lost," Ms Evans said.
"It's heartbreaking. It's hard. I can't even imagine how Noel and Marg feel. To Noel and Marg, it's like a child."
The bakery has had an immensely significant impact on many lives. Ms Evans' sense of despair stemmed from the role the bakery has played in her existence.
"It's been great," she said.
"Everyone becomes part of your family. It becomes part of your life. We all talk and ask each other advice."
Assistant manager Sarah Page began working at the shop at 14. She is now 30.
"Everyone was really nice and pretty easy to get along with so I stuck around," Ms Page said.
"It's made me more confident in talking to people. It's given me skills like phone-answering and customer service."
Steve Baines, one of five bakers, has been employed by the Stewarts for four years. He appreciates his employers and the nature of the job.
"They are some of the best people I've ever worked with," Mr Baines said.
"It's challenging work. I start on the bread (and) help them. Bakers go home. Pastry cooks come in and do pies, pasties, sausage rolls. Then we kick into cakes. No day's the same."
IN OTHER NEWS:
The Stewarts, in typical fashion, remain committed to their workers.
"All staff will be looked after," Marg Stewart categorically said on Monday afternoon.
For the entire Stewart clan - mother Marg, father Noel, and adult children Victoria, Stacey, and Isaac - the bakery has been everything.
"I was born into the bakery," Victoria Stewart said.
"I grew up in the bakery; all I wanted to do was work here. I started working here when I was 14; I worked here consistently until I was 25.
"My sister and I come in and work on Friday nights during football season. It's exactly what you call a family business. We all pitch in. We're very passionate."
Subsequently, the events of Saturday night will live long in the family members' individual and collective memories.
"We believe first notification happened to emergency at 10.40pm, but dad was first called by one of our staff members who had heard on Facebook so we were notified at 11pm," Ms Stewart said.
"We all came down here to be told that it had started in the tobacco shop, but we could see the big crane pumping water into our shop. That was their main priority, to save our shop, pumping the roof full of water. We were here until about 2am. It was deemed a crime scene.
"The police let mum and dad have a quick assess at about 1am. We didn't have adequate torches. We weren't able to access (the shop) until about 11.30am Sunday because it was still a crime scene."
While the current situation has been enormously confronting, the Stewarts have been boosted by the response of their clientele.
"I do believe what goes around comes around," Ms Stewarts said.
"Mum and dad have put a lot into the local community, donating things when they can, supporting local schools, local football clubs.
"To see everyone getting around us, it's been overwhelming. We're very grateful."
For those who have relied on Stewart's Bakery for sustenance over the years, and who long for its return after the destructive fire, they should start preparing a shopping list for the grand reopening.
"We're being optimistic at this point," Ms Stewart said.
"As mum and dad said, they opened up the bakery 33 years ago by themselves. Now, they've got us; they've got a bigger community than when they started; they've got more staff than when they started. If the two of them were able to do that, they can rebuild again."
Any witnesses or anyone with dash cam footage: Crime Stoppers 1800 333 000 or submit a confidential report at www.crimestoppersvic.com.au
If you are seeing this message you are a loyal digital subscriber to The Courier, as we made this story available only to subscribers. Thank you very much for your support and allowing us to continue telling Ballarat's story. We appreciate your support of journalism in our great city.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.