We live in an era of creative solutions for start-up food businesses. Whether it's food trucks or a pop-up business like Schmendricks, there is suddenly less pressure for entrepreneurs to immediately go whole hog by looking for a bricks and mortar location.
If not for these options, Schmendricks might never have gotten off the ground. No matter how much we'd believed in our product, it would have taken a much greater leap of faith for four bagel business newbies to plunk down the cash needed to lease and fully outfit a retail space.
Running as a pop-up has given us a lot more leeway to learn on the go. But it has also meant experiencing growing pains a lot more quickly. Almost as soon as we started selling bagels, we found we were due for an equipment upgrade. In order to make enough bagels to meet demand, we desperately needed a new oven.
Shopping for a Bagel Oven
Making this purchase has not been a simple matter of walking into the appliance store and choosing between brands. When we considered installing an oven into a shared kitchen, and also our budget, it became clear that we were looking for a used piece of equipment. This meant a prolonged search for the right oven, at the right price, a process that has involved enough of a time commitment that we have actually had to cut back on our production schedule these past two weeks.
That's not a decision a fledgling company takes lightly. In fact, we tried to avoid it for a good long time. But we've quickly realized that not being able to provide enough bagels to customers who line up for our product is a bigger problem than making ourselves scarce for a brief period.
Entering a used restaurant supply warehouse can be a little shocking. No fancy showroom displays here. Just stainless steel kitchen equipment in various states of disrepair stacked in endless piles.
Despite what appears to be chaos to the outsider, the fellows that manage these warehouses seem to know where everything is. Want a stand mixer and they'll point you to the right pile. They just can't (or won't) tell you much about the life of this equipment before it ended up in their warehouse.
As we perused ovens at several of these warehouses, the common refrain went something like: "Well, it was working when I pulled it out of the restaurant." They always promised that it would work, but couldn't tell us much about what the oven had been through, how old it was, or how well it would work.
Some of these places would actually extend a guarantee that if the thing didn't heat up, they'd return our money. By contrast, at least one place simply gestured towards the "All Sales Final" signs posted all over their office and shrugged.
We finally found a place that would at least hook the oven we wanted up to a gas line to show us that it works... and now we have delivery scheduled for this Saturday!
We Bought One!
I won't feel secure until the thing actually sits in our kitchen though. We actually had to walk away from the deal—No, we do not want to pay the whole cost, in cash, before delivery!—at least once in the process of making the purchase.
I may look back on this juncture in the development of our little venture and see it as just a minor footnote in our story, but right now it feels like a big deal.
To begin with, even if it's well used, this oven will be the single most expensive piece of equipment we'll own. Schmendricks will have assets!
And then, what comes after this oven? Start with increased corporate catering orders and events where we can sell bagels to customers by the dozens if they want them, and we're going to need employees very soon. This little project starts to take on the proportions of a more traditional business.
I don't think we'll know if that's true for a few months yet, but I'll be checking in again here to let you know how it goes.
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. Follow them on Twitter as @Schmendricks.