Ottawa’s beloved bagel shop is spreading itself around – just like cream cheese on a toasted sesame – and successfully expanding its retail footprint into nearby major markets.
Kettlemans Bagel has made a splash on the Toronto scene and is looking to do the same in Montreal, where company founder and CEO Craig Buckley was born and raised.
“We hope in the next couple of years to break into the United States, but right now we’ve got our eye on the ball when it comes to building more in Toronto, building more in Montreal, and we’re going to keep looking for locations in Ottawa, for sure,” said Buckley in a phone interview from the U.S.
He’s meeting there with suppliers to ensure his orders for highly specialized equipment, including ovens and mixers, for their new stores aren’t delayed due to pandemic-related global supply-chain bottlenecks.
“We’re on top of things,” he said. “You can’t lay your guard down; things are very tough right now.”
Buckley started Kettlemans in 1993 with his first 24-hour store in the Glebe, right across from the action at Lansdowne and what is now TD Place. Nearly 100 million bagels later, public demand continues for the hand-rolled wood-fired Montreal-style bagels, breakfast and lunch sandwiches, spreads and baked treats.
"We hope by next month we will be hitting that number, 100 million," said Buckley.
There’s also a Kettlemans at College Square Mall and Ottawa Train Yards. Last month, the company made its first foray into the suburbs by opening a store in Kanata at 710 Eagleson Rd. The new location features a spacious eating area and drive-up service – not to be confused with drive-through.
With drive-up, customers have the option of placing their orders and payment in advance via a mobile app, so that their bagels are ready to be handed to them through a window. Not only does this service model eliminate vehicle congestion and pollution, it’s also fast and convenient. Parents can avoid having to schlep their young kids to and from the store in order to buy bagels, said Buckley.
“It’s so successful that we’re going to do this with as many suburban locations as possible.”
Kettlemans has also introduced a new subscription service in Ottawa. It partnered with delivery company Trexity after that startup's CEO and co-founder, Alok Ahuja, approached Buckley with the idea.
“We thought it was absolutely amazing,” said Buckley, who plans to also offer subscriptions at the new downtown Toronto location slated to open in February.
Kettlemans entered the GTA in 2020 with a store in Etobicoke. The grand opening saw customers lining up along the sidewalk.
“We still have the lineups,” said Buckley of the company’s busiest location. “We’re having a hard time keeping up.”
Hence Kettlemans' soon-to-open second spot, located at Bathurst Street near Front Street West.
“We’re looking forward to getting a second store that can help with demand,” said Buckley.
The downtown storefront, located in a high-density area, will be more of a grab-and-go place, he said.
Kettlemans has also nailed down a third and fourth GTA location. It will next open stores in the eastern suburb of Whitby, followed by the Yonge and Eglinton area in Uptown Toronto. Many of its newer storefronts are next to a friendly face: Farm Boy – another Ottawa success story.
'Heavily committed to Montreal'
The Montreal market is an entirely different kettle of bagels, however. Few foods are as synonymous with Montreal than the bagel, and the cheeky social media exchanges and meme reactions to Kettlemans’ imminent arrival have already started.
“I’m heavily committed to Montreal,” said Buckley, who lived there until his 20s and plans to move back with his wife Maureen. He shares the city’s passion for great food.
“I can see it in myself. When I go travelling, I just want to go to the markets and restaurants, meet the owners and go into their kitchens.”
Later this year, Kettlemans will be debuting its first Montreal spot at the corner of Rue de la Montagne and Avenue des Canadiens-de-Montréal, near the Bell Centre. It’s working on a second Montreal location for 2023.
The company is interested in having more stores in Ottawa, particularly in the suburbs of Orléans and Barrhaven.
“We are now a big player, and we’re just going to keep expanding wherever we think is possible,” said Buckley, who’s in charge of building out the company and growing it. “I don’t really have a limit on how many we’re going to do.”
"The problem with a lot of companies is they lose their feel, and I never want that."
It’s important to Buckley that Kettlemans, as it continues to grow, stays true to its roots.
“The problem with a lot of companies is they lose their feel, and I never want that,” he said.
Everyone who joins Kettlemans – even the top brass – is trained to work the cash and make sandwiches to get a better understanding of how the entire operation works. Buckley got the idea from former McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc, who had his entire board work in a McDonald’s restaurant one day a month.
Buckley said he didn’t know if this practice would go over well with the company's new head of finance, who’d most recently been at one of the Big Four accounting firms.
“He absolutely loved it,” said Buckley.
Buckley and his president and COO, Amer Wahab, have a team in charge of all the departments, including marketing and communications, finance, operations, human resources and catering. Kettlemans employs 500 people, a number that’s expected to grow to nearly 1,000 by the end of the year.
As a founder, said Buckley, “We all start off by getting our hands dirty, by doing everything from mopping the floor and cleaning toilets. Now, you have to allow these people you just hired – these really great people – to do what they do.
“That’s how you get bigger.”