Ottawa-based Kettleman’s Bagel Co. eyes ambitious expansion

Craig Buckley lands new business partner with the aim of taking stores to Toronto and beyond
Craig Buckley
Twenty-five years after opening his first store, Kettleman’s Bagel Company founder Craig Buckley now operates three locations and employs nearly 250 people in Ottawa. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

Want to know what’s expanding faster than dough in a wood-burning oven? Kettleman’s Bagel Company.

Ottawa-based bagel shop owner Craig Buckley has plans to grow his current three locations to a baker’s dozen and beyond within the next three years. He’s looking to enter retail markets in other major cities, including Toronto, through new investment money coming in from a private growth equity firm in Montreal.

“Our ultimate goal is to get to between 20 and 25 restaurants,” says Buckley inside the winterized patio at his 912 Bank St. location in the Glebe.

The patio, which is warm and cozy with hanging lights and sturdy, indestructible tables, was built three years ago to provide more year-round space for customers. Buckley had seen a similar restaurant addition during one of his regular visits to other cities, and decided to improve upon the borrowed idea.

“You know what they say: ‘Pioneers often end up with arrows in their backs.’”

Buckley, 52, is what you’d call a serial entrepreneur, having run 12 businesses of various kinds. He’s only once ever worked for someone else – at Steinberg supermarket when he was a teenager.

In the 1980s, he studied commerce at Concordia in his hometown of Montreal, followed by economics at McGill.

“I didn’t last a month because I realized that I didn’t want to become a banker, I wanted to become an entrepreneur,” he explains.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of his bagel shop. It began as just an 11-seat space that had previously served as a Fat Albert’s submarine sandwich joint. The name Kettleman’s refers to the unique boiling or “kettling” process that adds a hard crust to bagels.

Right from the start, there were customer lineups. That’s because the business sells fresh Montreal-style bagels, hand-rolled by trained bakers and plank-baked in a wood-burning oven, all in plain view of the public. It also stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as is customary with bagel shops in Montreal.

Kettleman's Bagel

So popular are bagels – which originated in Poland some 400 years ago – that they even have their own national day on Feb. 9.

“Every morning I get up and I’m excited to go to work. I’m never like ‘Uhhh,” sighs the married businessman.

Moreover, he has no interest in ever retiring.

“Everybody dreams of retirement, but then you retire and go, ‘Now what do I do?’”

“We’ve never had a down year ever. Even when the Atkins low-carb diet was around, our sales weren’t as high, but we never had a down year."

On any given day, Kettleman’s bakes 6,000 bagels. Its most popular variety? Sesame. Its best-sold sandwich? The breakfast bagel. Kettleman’s roasts and brines its own meats for its popular sandwiches, while its smoked meats come from Montreal.

“We’ve never had a down year ever. Ever,” says Buckley. “Even when the Atkins low-carb diet was around, our sales weren’t as high, but we never had a down year.”

Its annual sales the first year surpassed the seven-figure mark and doubled by the time Kettleman’s hit its 20-year milestone. It was around that point that Buckley reached a deal that would see his founding business partner bow out.

'If you aren't growing, you're dying'

“I had to get rid of my partner; he was holding me back,” says Buckley. “If you aren’t growing, you’re dying.”

It was a smart move, because Buckley was then in a position to join forces with a highly accomplished Ottawa businessman.

“It’s one of the best things I ever did,” says Buckley.

Kettleman’s annual sales more than doubled again, but this time it took only four years.

He and his new partner – who would prefer to stay in the background for now – opened a second location at the west-end College Square, near Algonquin College, in September 2016 and a third location in the east-end Train Yards shopping district last July.

Both locations, which have the advantage of ample free parking, are performing “extremely well,” says Buckley.

He’s also hired Amer Wahab, formerly of Five Guys Burgers & Fries, to head operations while he works on the business expansion.

Now, if you think Buckley is rolling in dough – as in the green kind – think again. He cut his income in half while investing millions of dollars into his business. Moreover, the amount of money he spends on property and business taxes, hydro, uniform costs and staff training is absolutely staggering.

Key to the company’s expansion, he says, will be getting well-trained teams together. It’s going to take time, he concedes.

The business has close to 250 employees and prefers to hire from within. Bakers go through a minimum of six months’ paid training, while it takes about 120 hours of learning before new floor hires are ready.

There’s a sense of pride when Buckley talks about his staff, including one of his managers – a former Syrian refugee who escaped to Canada after being imprisoned for his views against the al-Assad government.

“He’s doing an amazing job,” he says.

Buckley, or “Craig” as he’s known to his staff, likes to empower his employees to come up with ideas and suggestions for improvement. He keeps wages above minimum, with long-time managers earning $50,000 to $60,000 a year.

It’s Buckley’s hope that his investment in new and existing employees will result in them choosing to make a career out of Kettleman’s.

“Even if they don’t stay with us, when they leave we’ve taught them so much, such as discipline, working with others, thinking on their own and dealing with customers. Whatever they go and do, they’re going to be a much better person.”

Five things to know about Craig Buckley

  1. One of Mr. Buckley’s early influences was a book by Peter C. Newman called The Canadian Establishment. It inspired him to go out of his way to meet Canadian billionaire Paul Desmarais Sr., who built one of the country’s biggest fortunes after reviving his family’s fleet of buses in a mining town. For two weeks, the budding entrepreneur would drop by Mr. Desmarais’ Canada Steamship Lines headquarters each day in Montreal and wait for him to exit the building so that he could introduce himself. The man never appeared. He found out much later from a friend in the elevator business that Mr. Desmarais had his own private elevator that took him between his underground parked car and his office.
  2. Ah, but there’s still one other successful businessman on Mr. Buckley’s people-to-meet list: George Cohon, founder of McDonald’s Canada and McDonald’s Russia. A meeting has been arranged for this spring through a mutual friend.
  3. As shocking as this sounds, one of his early entrepreneurial efforts was running his own condom business in Montreal. “I had my grandparents, my parents and all my family packaging them,” he recalls.
  4. Mr. Buckley’s first business in Ottawa was a Sunny’s Petroleum gas station at the downtown corner of Kent Street and Gladstone Avenue. He worked seven days a week, 16 hours a day. He earned only about $13,500 that year, in 1987, but the experience taught him more about business than school ever did.
  5. Another idea Mr. Buckley picked up from his travels was to switch from the take-a-number system to giving customers pagers that alert them when their sandwich order is ready. The signal reaches as far as Irene’s Pub across the road from his Glebe store.