It's been three and a half years since partners Dan Herbst and Geoff Hardman peddled their first homemade bagel at the Gordon Square Farmer's Market — and that bagel truly was homemade, fabricated as it was like all the rest back then at Herbst's apartment.
This past fall the duo opened a production facility and retail storefront with the help of partner Alan Glazen, whom the pair met while filming Cleveland Hustles. Since the beginning, the goal of Cleveland Bagel Co. has been to produce the best-tasting bagels that money can buy while building a local business that lives up to the "Cleveland" brand.
"One of the greatest assets of Cleveland is its people," explains Hardman, a former software guy. "We have been afforded so many opportunities from people like Gary Thomas of Ohio City Pasta, who let us work out of his kitchens. This isn't rocket science. We have a company that can train anybody, so why not train anybody? We can hire the people that maybe others wouldn't."
Since graduating from the apartment to the shared space at Ohio City Pasta to the current production facility in Ohio City (4201 Detroit Ave., 216-600-5652, clebagelco.com), Cleveland Bagel Co. has more than quadrupled its output, to approximately 10,000 units per week. But more than sales figures, what delights the partners most of all is the ability to show off their product in the best possible light.
"Doing wholesale business, nobody ever really gets the chance to get fresh bagels right out of the oven," says Herbst, noting that those bagels at the local coffee shop were baked and delivered hours earlier. "We're not just selling bread rounds. We're doing bagels the way they should be done."
The authentic process involves a slow, natural fermentation and proofing process followed by a water boil and bake. In some circles, by the way, it's heretical to toast a fresh-baked bagel.
Just as they have done from the start, the team will continue to expand and grow the company in thoughtful, measured steps. Now that they've got the current system down to a consistent routine, the guys can begin to push the operation a little bit at a time.
"Just in the short time we've been open our staff has come a long way," Hardman says. "The shop is running like a machine and we can begin to add things without it being a huge hiccup."
Next up at the shop will be the introduction of hot breakfast sandwiches like a bacon, egg and cheese bagel, to go along with the bagel and schmears currently offered. When that has been rolled out successfully, guests might soon see lunch service added into the mix, with an accompanying roster of bagel sandwiches. Also not too far in the distance is a second shop, so that customers elsewhere in the city can buy a hot and fresh Cleveland Bagel.
"We're actively, aggressively looking for a second location on the eastside, hoping that we can match the dynamics of our first one," Glazen reports.
But despite the company's trajectory, don't expect to see the core values change, Hardman asserts.
"We're always going to stay small-batch," he says. "There comes a point at which you scale that might affect your product. We want to employ people, we want to pay them a living wage. The profit is there, so why would we necessarily scale up the process so much that we eliminate those jobs and possibly mess up the quality of our product?"
"We are asking a lot of our employees to show up at four in the morning and be on your feet all day," Herbst interjects. "So paying a living wage goes a long way. If you pay them a decent wage and treat them with respect, you'll get dedication and loyalty."
Herbst and Hardman manage to pay a dozen staffers $15 an hour by selling $2 bagels, less than you'd spend on a side of plain mass-market toast at the local diner. And it is precisely those employees who will help Cleveland Bagel expand to new locations in Cleveland and elsewhere.
"We've made a point of training our staff in every position so they can learn the whole process, from rolling bagels to the front of the house," notes Hardman. "We could take anyone of our core staff and branch out."
And branch out they will, not just to a second Cleveland location, but beyond our borders.
"Ultimately, we want to open up another shop here, maybe a third shop here," Hardman says. "And then, we're going to expand elsewhere outside the city — and we're going to keep the Cleveland Bagel name. Right now, we're at a time when the Cleveland name has cache. Maybe six, seven years ago the name might have been a hindrance."
If you haven't tried a Cleveland Bagel since those early flea and farmer's market days, you might be pleasantly surprised by how far they've come.
"We would be completely embarrassed about that early product," Hardman says with a laugh. "But that's how it should be. You shouldn't wait around until you have the perfect product. You should get out there and do it and keep getting better. You should be embarrassed, because it means you're growing."