How We Started a Bagel Company in San Francisco, Part 3
Baking for our first few pop-up events, a feeling of terror remained firmly lodged in my stomach, up until the first batch came out of the oven and I felt confident we'd actually have something to sell. Unlike any other job I've had, running a food business involves the possibility of confronting a situation where there's no problem-solving option in the moment. If we were to unwittingly fumble our bagel dough, there's not a whole lot we'd be able to do when flavorless (or worse) bagels came out of the oven.
Even with tasty bagels in hand, however, selling to lines of customers meant developing a whole new set of skills.
Our First Pop-Up Bagelry
For our first event, we hit the street at Fayes, a lovable little neighborhood coffee shop/video store, completely uncertain if any customers would appear. Not wanting to sacrifice a boatload of bagels to the compost bin, we rolled a paltry five-dozen for the event. Yet, as Dan and Dagny discovered when they went to set up 30-minutes beforehand, there were already people waiting.
We had envisioned begging passersby to give us a try, but instead we had a line from the moment we started selling until we sold out 30 minutes later. And it only took us that long because we struggled to be efficient about the slicing and schmearing of our bagels.
How Many Schmendricks Does it Take to Slice a Bagel?
Just because you know how to make the food, doesn't mean you know how to deliver it to your customers efficiently. At our third event, people waited in line for over an hour to try our bagels. At our fourth event, the cops showed up. (They were actually quite pleasant, and once they established that we were properly permitted, simply asked that we adjust the flow of our line.)
Our initial bagel-delivery strategy had been something along the lines of: You stand at the register and I'll stand here with the bagels. It quickly became clear that we needed a better system.
An outsider might have been amused hearing us search for ways to make a relatively simple act of slicing a bagel, then spreading it with cream cheese, more efficient.
Eventually, we added little touches like a receipt printer so that orders could be passed to the schmearers rather than yelled out (and forgotten), and a visible menu board so customers weren't fumbling with their orders. Even so, despite the fact that we're only selling bagels and cream cheese, we need a minimum of all four Schmendricks working to successfully run an event.
A Good Problem to Have
As I mentioned last week, we have a giant bottleneck in our kitchen, and it centers around our inadequate ovens. Due to these frustrating machines, we simply cannot produce bagels fast enough to meet the demand we face at most of our events.
Friends and fellow entrepreneurs continually remind us that having demand outstrip supply is a good problem to have, but selling out can often leave us feeling just a little lousy. During one sale, I watched in dismay as we handed over the last bagel to one customer, only to see the next gentleman, who had come up one spot short after waiting for 30 minutes, wobble away on a walker. (We offered to deliver bagels to his house.)
Yes, we're giddy to have all these people show up at our events, but it's hard not to feel that we're disappointing people at the same time. At every event, our moment of greatest consternation comes when we look out at the line and try to decide on the maximum number of bagels we can allow individual customers to purchase. Either we disappoint the the woman who drove up from Sunnyvale to get a dozen bagels only to be told it's a three-per-person limit, or we send the people at the end of the line away empty-handed after a long wait. (Or we estimate horribly, and end up with dozens of extra bagels on our hands.)
In the meantime, we're feverishly looking for new ovens. I'll relish the day when I look up from serving bagels to see that the line has dissipated and we have a single lonely bagel left. That will mean every customer went home happy, and there's still one left for me.
Do you have vivid memories of the bagels of your childhood? Before we started Schmendricks, I thought I was the only one.
But—and allow me to get sappy for a second here—it's been a little heart-warming to discover how strong a connection people have to this bread. It's not just that people show up to our events, or that they'll wait in an imposing line, but the memories they share about their childhood bagel shop, or the smile they give us when they tell us our bagels are "real."
Maybe most touching has been the families. Not just because the kids are adorable as they try to gnaw through a chewy bagel, but because in many cases it seems to be a conscious act on the part of the parents to pass on a tradition. It's really nice to be a part of that.
When we started Schmendricks, we did envision ourselves as bagel prosletyzers of sorts, but we didn't realize that so many people out there already subscribed to the gospel. So, yes, it's nice to have a little green in the cash box after a successful day of selling—let's be honest, we wouldn't have started a business if we hadn't wanted to make at least some money. But we really appreciate the smiles as well.
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, or attend their upcoming Bagel Education class!