PORTLAND — On the 18th day, the Kickstarter crowd spoke, and the word was “bagels.”
Paul Farrell, a burly boat-builder turned labor organizer turned bagel baker and the driving force behind the upstart Union Bagel Co., couldn’t be happier.
With 12 days to spare, supporters contributed more than $7,500 via the crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter.com for Farrell and his team of baking buddies to begin the company, which Farrell said will fill what he believes is a void in the Portland baked goods market.
“The traditional New York-style bagel is different than anything else that’s going on in Portland,” he said Monday afternoon in the basement of the Public Market House on Monument Square. The community kitchen there will be Union Bagel’s headquarters, where Farrell and friends will soon spend their nights rolling, boiling and baking bagels.
Farrell is of the opinion there are decent bagels available in South Portland, but none on the peninsula. Mr. Bagel co-owner Frank Read disagreed.
“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Read said. According to Read, “Today” show weatherman Willard Scott once said Mr. Bagel was the closest, though not exact, replica of a New York bagel outside the city (after Scott made a dismissive on-air comment that caused bagel bakers across the country to send him samples).
Either way, the New York bagel is an elusive goal.
“It’s like a mythical quality that people aspire to,” Dave Tozeski, one of Farrell’s partners in the business, said. Its crust should be soft, but chewy; its “crumb” – the bagel’s interior, in baker-speak – should be dense and moist. It should spring back to shape when squeezed.
Farrell and his crew plan to produce that bagel, making dough entirely from organic flour and shaping each one by hand. They will be boiled, briefly, in a mixture of water and molasses, then baked on a burlap-covered board for a few minutes, to allow the bagel’s crust to dry and harden, and finally flipped onto the flat surface of a double-decker oven.
For now, Farrell is the sole owner and only true employee of the company. Tozeski and the other bakers involved are more volunteers for the time being. All but one have full-time jobs working for Standard Baking Co., which does not make bagels.
The volunteers have been instrumental in getting the company to this point, Farrell said, helping to devise recipes, bake test batches in home kitchens, and run the Kickstarter campaign.
“I was delighted that they believed enough that they would offer some of their free time to help get this off the ground,” he said.
As the company finds its footing, Farrell said, they will look at cooperative and worker-owned business models. The Union name is, after all, a reference to Farrell’s experience as a labor organizer and his self-professed “pie in the sky” ideals of solidarity and sustainability.
Farrell said he wants his friends and future employees to take an active role in the growth of the company.
“In some way we want them to benefit from the profit at the end of the year,” he said, “but also to have some sort of say and impact on the things we make and the course we take.
“What it means in the end is I’m not going to get filthy rich, but as the company grows, the value of my share will increase, as it will with everybody else.”
In a sense, Farrell has already offered the baking team something valuable, and hard to come by, Tozeski said: the experience of starting a business, with none of the risk or stress.
“This is a great way to get a trial run,” Tozeski said. “At some point in your career, you have to ask yourself if you want to do it full-time, for yourself.”
Nina Murray, a 25-year-old baker on the team, said she often dreamed of opening her own bakery, perhaps even in the Public Market House. When Farrell asked her to help out, it was like he “was coming with my own business plan,” she said.
The project is a chance to “see what works and what doesn’t,” Murray said. If the venture fails, she and Tozeski still have full-time jobs at Standard.
Not that Murray expects that to happen. “I think we’re in a really good position to succeed,” she said.
Union Bagel’s start-up budget, mostly of money from the Kickstarter campaign and Farrell’s own contribution, won’t go very far.
“Bagels are all about volume, so we need to build our volume pretty quickly,” Farrell said. He expects to make about 100 dozen bagels – plain, sesame, poppy seed, onion, garlic, salt, and “everything” – each night to start out, he said.
The fledgling company will begin by only selling its products to wholesale customers. The K. Horton specialty foods store in the Public Market House has signed on, he said, and several other retailers are waiting for test samples striking deals.
But the success of the Kickstarter campaign shows that the demand is there, Farrell said. Most of the contributions have come from the greater Portland area, and several donors have said they will also be customers. The campaign has raised $8,160 dollars since it began in late February – $600 over their goal – and will continue to accept donations until Sunday, March 25.
“It’s a product that people will look for,” Murray said. “There’s something to be said for the immediacy of an in-town bagel.”
Dave Tozeski rolls a batch of test dough as Nina Murray, left, and Paul Farrell look on in the Public Market House’s Community Kitchen on Monument Square in Portland. The three make up half of the team that is working to create the Union Bagel Co., which successfully ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise $7,500 to open the business.