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Bakers make bagel magic at Kettlemans Bagels

Bagel-making at Kettlemans is high drama.
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Kettlemans Bagels' Craig Buckley.

The best theatre you'll see in Ottawa is the choreographed dance around the raging fire dough rollers and bagel bakers perform at Kettlemans Bagels everyday.

Customers stand and watch, hypnotized as bakers working in unison, roll dough into perfect concentric circles before cooking them in a great pot of boiling water while another throws them in tidy rows into a roaring hardwood fire the way bakers have been doing for four hundred years.

It's a show of culinary magic Kettlemans bakers perform 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

“People often come just to watch the bakers at work,” says Craig Buckley, the globe-trotting entrepreneur who created Kettlemans Bagels in 1993. “It's not a gimmick. Customers love the theatre, are attracted by the fire. It's how good food's been made for centuries.”

In addition to the spectacle in the kitchen, customers purchase some of the 9,000 bagels each Kettlemans location makes everyday.

“We set out to make the best bagel this side of Montreal and I think we succeeded,” Buckley boasts.

Born into a family of entrepreneurs in Montreal, Buckley had no idea what he wanted to do for a living growing up other than owning his own business. That ambiguous ambition led him to Ottawa in 1987 when he found an opportunity to run a Suny's gas station on Gladstone Ave., and though it was far from glamorous, it's where the young man learned the essentials of successfully running his own business.

Tired of working 18 hour days for a paltry $12,000 salary, Buckley's fortunes took a dramatic turn in 1993 when a location across the street from Lansdowne Stadium hit the market.

He opened his first bagel shop on Bank street in the heart of the Glebe in 1993, naming it Kettlemans as a tribute to the immigrant bakers who moved the raw dough bagels to the kettles.

“The original Lansdowne location reminded me of the bagel shops near the Bell Centre we used to go to,” Buckley recalls. “The bagel shops were packed after the pubs closed. I knew a Montreal-style bagel shop, like the shops on St. Viateur, would be just as popular in Ottawa, if it was in the right location, in the heart of the community.”

As Buckley had predicted, Kettlemans was an immediate hit with customers, growing with locations in the Trainyards and Shoppers City and two locations in Toronto. This year should be a banner year for the company, which is planning to open two more locations in Toronto and another in Montreal, not coincidentally across from the same Bell Centre his love affair with bagels began so long ago.

“When you're in a 24/7, high turnover business like we are, you have to be where people are,” Buckley adds. “It's labour intensive. We employ 600 people. The process of baking in open wood-burning fires is slow, but worth it for the flavour.”

“I feel like the Ray Krok (the American entrepreneur who created McDonald's) of bagels,” Buckley laughs. “We're a strong company because we're always making ourselves better. I was born with an entrepreneurial spirit and a passion to make something my own. I love it. I never want to retire.”

And whenever he's a little homesick for Montreal, Buckley's happy he made his fortune in Ottawa.

“I'm amazed how entrepreneurial Ottawa is,” he says. “It's a small town full of sophisticated people and entrepreneurs. My advice to anyone starting their own business is to network with them, ask questions, learn from others, meet your peers, talk to successful entrepreneurs about how they succeeded, play golf with them, do whatever you have to with passion. There's no secret formula to become successful. All it takes is hard work and the loyalty of your customers.”

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