Blazing a trail for the bagel business Pioneers: Staking a claim to franchise territory takes time, money and frontier know-how.

September 11, 1996|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

When Martha Lucius and her husband, Michael Myers, decided to become pioneers on the bagel frontier, their first order of business was finding a homestead, some untapped market where people craved bagels but couldn't get their fill.

They considered Denver, but somebody else had beat them to the claim. They looked at Ohio, a place about as synonymous with bagel-eating as a bowling alley, but a big-time pizza man had locked up locations from Cleveland to Canton. They checked out Pittsburgh, but income levels didn't measure up to bagel demographics. They even took a passing, distant glance at California.

Then there was downtown Baltimore, sitting relatively empty amid bagel-rich suburbs.

Last month, they opened a Chesapeake Bagel Bakery franchise on East Pratt Street, and now they find themselves on the leading edge of a land rush. Within two weeks Broadway Bagels will open a few blocks away on East Baltimore Street, and Myers said he's heard of plans for two more new downtown bagel shops.

He and Lucius, meanwhile, plan to open as many as four more city shops in the next year or so. Throw in earlier downtown entries by Sam's Bagels & More and Bagel Works of Belvedere, and suddenly Baltimore seems a bagel boom town.

Perhaps it was inevitable, Myers said, seeing as how "bagels were originally a fad food, but now they've become a staple." When that kind of thing happens, seemingly unlikely areas can become hot properties.

The search Lucius and Myers went through helps to explain how. Their venture is a reprise of the old entrepreneurial standby that, with the right location, a jolt of cash and a willingness to work can turn short-term risk into long-term profit.

One would have hardly predicted they'd enter the bagel business by their former livelihoods, when they were living in Washington. He was -- still is, in fact -- a woodworker, age 36. She was, and still hopes to be, a calligrapher. She's 32.

Both their jobs had hot and cold cycles, varying greatly from one year to the next. Neither came with medical insurance or a retirement plan, and they worried about long-term financial security. Then in 1989 he began picking up woodworking contracts as Chesapeake built new franchises, and they wondered if their future might be in bagels.

Not long after they were married in 1995, they and another couple decided to combine their savings to start a franchise. They paid a franchise fee of $13,000 -- a cost that goes higher with each additional franchise -- and began scouting other Chesapeake shops, the good and the bad, Lucius said, "to get the feel for what worked and what didn't work."

She also went through six weeks of in-shop training, experiencing the business from one end to the other. But the most important matter was staking their claim to their own franchise territory.

They wanted a city big enough to accommodate three to five shops. And Myers wanted a place that allowed a quick getaway to the great outdoors. That drew their interest as far west as California, while places like Texas didn't make the first cut.

"In Texas the market is very poor," Myers explained. "Some people don't even know what a bagel is."

Denver seemed like a good choice. Not only would the Rockies be right out their back door, but the city was rich with "typical bagel eaters."

And that generally means? "A woman, age 35 to 40, healthy, a nonsmoker, maybe she works out," Lucius said. And on some mornings maybe she even talks her doughnut-eating husband or co-worker into joining her for a bagel or two.

Another top choice was Cleveland, even if the city is hardly what comes to mind when either outdoor adventure or bagels are the topic.

"Michael had gone to college in Ohio," Lucius explained.

But it turned out that a guy who was running a string of pizza franchises had already locked up the whole of Ohio for Chesapeake. Out went Cleveland, with Canton, another possibility, close behind.

Question of location

In Pittsburgh, the median income figures came in too low, and that left Baltimore. The question then was location.

Though the city offered plenty of potential customers, it seemed to have few decent locations. Chesapeake likes sites with handy parking and convenient access, preferably with a grocery store nearby.

And it likes at least 1,500 square feet of floor space, enough room for the big mixing, shaping and cutting machines, the ovens, the boiling kettles and the walk-in refrigerators where the dough "proofs" overnight.

It also helps to have an office.

The Pratt Street location was a tight fit. In fact, it didn't fit at all, coming in at about 1,000 square feet. Nor did it have a parking lot. Nor was it surrounded by neighborhoods that give bagel shops their usual weekend morning boosts.

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