Mark Workman certainly didn't envision becoming the first and last word in bagels in Victoria.
In fact, Workman said he and business partner Elliott Silverman, who took in $17 on their first day as bagel retailers, had doubts they would even survive their first few months.
But 20 years later, it's hard to imagine the city - and breakfast at a long list of Victoria eateries - without Mount Royal Bagel Factory. The little bagel joint tucked away in the North Park neighbourhood off Cook Street has become a staple for people looking for an authentic bagel taste.
"When we opened, we didn't know bagels were going to boom. When we sold [so little] we said, 'How are we going to do this?' " said Workman. "We were at the end of our line of credit, we had no money. We really questioned it."
That was October 1992. These days, the tiny retail shop and bagel bakery has weathered food fads, diets, low-carb mania, expansion and consolidation. It now produces about 5,000 bagels a day that are sold at their retail store, Thrifty Foods, the Markets on Yates and Millstream and at what Workman calls "a slew of restaurants, cafÃ©s and little breakfast joints" around the region.
"We've survived, we're still here," he said Friday. "And people seem to love the product. We have customers who have been coming in since Day 1."
Truth is, they've thrived. And all because Montrealer Workman woke up wanting a bagel for breakfast more than two decades ago.
Workman, who had moved out to Victoria after visiting fellow Montrealer and childhood friend Silverman, wanted a real bagel.
But as Silverman pointed out at the time, their adopted city didn't really have those, save for the bread-styled variety found in plastic bags in grocery stores.
"That kind of spurred the idea," said Workman. "I mean, I'm from Montreal where bagels are a staple. I didn't know they didn't exist everywhere."
So using a recipe Silverman sourced from Montreal, the pair, who had never baked anything in their lives, started experimenting.
The result, after a series of failures and frustration, was a bagel that piqued the interest of some local restaurants.
"Pagliacci's was our first customer. From there, we started to get phone calls from people who had tried the bagels and wanted them," said Workman.
The pair then rented kitchen space from a pizza place and started a wholesale business. As word spread, they realized they were going to have to find a storefront.
They found a home in the North Park neighbourhood.
"We opened and it just went from there," said Workman. They rode bagel popularity through the early 1990s to a peak in 1996, when bagel shops that had sprung up over that five-year period started to close their doors.
In that period, Mount Royal added a bakery on West Saanich Road and a retail store in Fairfield. Both of those locations no longer exist.
"It's a small business and when you expand you take that money and plug it back in and often you never feel you are getting ahead - although we were selling more product we were not necessarily making more money," said Workman.
The bakery was eventually sold to a former employee. The retail location in Fairfield was shuttered after a lease ran out.
"I think shrinking back and really concentrating on this really made all the difference," said Workman, noting they have the capacity to expand their production at their Grant Street facility.
The other selling feature is likely the fact they have never messed with the recipe or the way the bagels are made, other than improving and refining the process along the way.
"The recipe is one thing, technique is everything," said Workman. They are all made by hand from mixing, forming, boiling and baking by the same bakers they have employed for more than 18 years.
Workman admits the philosophy tends to be "if it ain't broke don't fix it" and looking ahead he sees adding a few more products to the mix of 14 varieties of bagel and some select breads.
Mount Royal also sells cream cheese, which it buys in bulk and flavours in house to complement its bagel varieties.
"It won't be anything too complicated. I think people like the simplicity of this," he said. "You can have all the food trends you like but the bottom line is biting into something good is biting into something good. It's as simple as that."
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