How We Started a Bagel Company in San Francisco, Part 2

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[Photographs: David Kover, unless otherwise noted]

For the amateur food entrepreneur, it's a big leap between saying you're going to start a food business and actually starting one. I don't mean the idea for the business, or the legal paperwork that technically transforms you into a corporation. That's pretty easy.

But taking the first step into the I-have-no-idea-how-this-will-go abyss and then committing to the process anyway can feel almost insurmountable. Judging by the inertia we felt when it came to starting Schmendricks, I'm probably underestimating when I say that one hundred food businesses die in conception for every one that truly gets off the ground.

In the period after we had perfected our bagel recipe, the conversations amongst our little group of friends often went something like this:

"We can totally start a bagel business!"

"Yeah! We'll call ourselves Schmendricks!"

And then we'd just stare at each other.

Even after Deepa quit her job as a lawyer to launch Schmendricks, we spent another five months staring at each other before doing anything substantive to actually become a business. It took the sudden availability of space in a commercial kitchen, an opportunity we didn't think we could pass up, to spur us to activity.

Moving to a Commercial Kitchen

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Those ovens cause us a great deal of trouble

I won't say that we've completely overcome the psychological inertia of those early days—we still find ourselves dragging our feet when faced with a major decision—but once we'd moved into a larger kitchen space, our major challenges became much more concrete in nature. Quite simply, working in a commercial kitchen is nothing like working at home.

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A much bigger wad of dough than we could produce in our home kitchen

There were technical issues that would only befall neophytes like us—How the hell do you re-light the pilot on an industrial-sized kettle? But mostly, we quickly discovered that the results of a bread recipe can fluctuate wildly as the quantity changes. In large part, the bigger the ball of dough we created, the flatter the flavor of our bagels seemed to turn out. By the time we finished re-calibrating things for this new setting, just about every percentage changed.

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Lifting bagels out of the kettle

Our kitchen exacerbated this problem. Though we count ourselves pretty lucky to have found space in a kitchen with kettles large enough to boil dozens of bagels at once, it did not come outfitted with the ideal ovens for our operation.

A word to future bagel bakers of the world: the standard issue oven you find in most catering kitchens does not work for our beloved toroidal breadstuff.

All of the problems we thought we'd overcome in our recipe testing phase returned. Some of our bagels again developed warts.

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A warty bagel is not a pretty thing

"Breast Implant" Bagels

We also had a rash of bagels that we affectionately came to know as "breast implant" bagels because they would swell up so quickly in the oven that the hole at the center would close, leaving behind something shaped like, well, you know:

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What we call "breast implant" bagels

It took us from October through early February, when we first offered our bagels for sale, to finish this process. As it stands, we're forced to use our ovens in ways they hadn't been intended, and Deepa has thrown out her back from repeatedly packing them and unpacking them full of baking stones. Getting a new oven remains our highest priority. But, in the meantime, yes, the bagels are back where we want them:

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Ah, much better!

This Is Not a Hobby

Running this business is a lot of work. It's an obvious point, but worth repeating if anyone out there is reading this and considering starting their own food business. I certainly did not fully understand this until we'd moved into the commercial kitchen and things started rolling.

With Deepa committing to Schmendricks full-time, I had envisioned her with extra hours to catch up on reading, while the rest of us slotted in at a leisurely pace. Oh boy—not the case!

At our current rate, we bake bagels three times a week. On the surface, that should leave ample time for other activities. But Deepa's job as Chief Schmendrick—and just to give credit where credit is due, the company couldn't even hope to exist without her—takes up far more than an eight-hour workday. Between answering a gazillion customer emails a week, to setting up deliveries to our catering customers, to pounding the pavement to find locations for us to hold pop-up sales, she's thinking about bagels all the time.

Well, the rest of us think about bagels all the time, but our non-bagel employment limits the amount of time that we can physically work on Schmendricks. It has created strange mish-mashed days for me, like Wednesday and Friday of last week, when I got up at 4 a.m. to bake for our corporate catering orders, went straight to my nine-to-five, and then headed out to interview a pizzaiolo for Slice. Needless to say, we all sleep very well when our heads hit the pillow.

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[Photograph: Andy Kover]

If it sounds like I'm complaining, I don't mean it that way. Yeah, the 4 a.m. wake-up call can be a bit rough, but it's both engrossing and exhilarating to work on a project that we can truly call our own. Add the fact that, as we've started selling these bagels, our own passion for this humble roll with a hole has been met by equal enthusiasm from our customers, and the experience has been pretty thrilling so far.

More on meeting our customers in next week's post!

Read: How We Started a Bagel Company, Part 1 ยป

About the author: David Kover is one of Serious Eats' San Francisco contributors. Along with his wife and two friends, he founded Schmendricks, a San Francisco company that bakes New York-style bagels. Schmendricks operates as a pop-up vendor, selling their bagels all over town, most often to long lines of transplanted New Yorkers desperate for a real bagel. Follow them on Twitter as @Schmendricks.

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