Bullish on Bottoms Up Bagels
Joan Kanner and Michelle Bond, co-founders of Bottoms Up Bagels, work to create the bagel memories they grew up with as kids in New Jersey. For Joan, that’s Saturday night visits with her grandparents to Watson Bagels in Irvington, New Jersey to get bagels before going home to watch The Golden Girls. For Michelle, Joan’s wife and Bottoms Up owner, it’s the memory of the steam-covered windows and countertops at the shops she used to visit daily in high school.
About exactly a year ago, we shared our own bagel memory with Bottoms Up, when we micro-casted with Michelle from a freezing cold park bench at 7am while discussing her favorite bagel pairings. We've clearly come a long way since then; this time we met Michelle and Joan - inside - at their new space in B-More Kitchen on a Sunday afternoon. When we spoke last year, Michelle and Joan were ramping up for their pop-up bagel takeover at the Pixilated space in Federal Hill (and they then proceeded to sell-out everyday for eight days…).
Disclaimer: we're huge fans of Michelle, Joan and their bagels (handmade, the best in Baltimore no argument - especially a black russian with their green onion cream cheese and lox...or the sesame with sriracha cream cheese...) and they are our friends. Some might say we're biased, but we just think that's called being bullish on their bagel game.
So we wanted to know what this journey of “creating a bagel memory” looks like, especially in Baltimore - and what it means to Joan and Michelle.
Bottoms Up grew, literally, from the bottom up as Michelle and Joan hustled out of their kitchen, making bagels for friends and special events. Fueled by a desire to turn this side-project into a “wonderful playground for getting things done our way,” they decided to go for it and sell their bagels to the public at the Waverly Main Street Holiday Pop Up Market in December 2015. While they were new to the scene, they sold out within hours. We told you, they are excellent (shout out to the everything bagel with kimchi and egg...it’s messy, just try it). Since then, Joan and Michelle have focused on creating and growing a food business that genuinely emphasizes the value they provide to their customers. This is why each Saturday, all winter long, you can find them outside cooking up breakfast sandwiches at the 32nd Street Farmers Market.
We became bullish on Bottoms Up thanks to the time Joan and Michelle spent chatting with us at their different events this year. They will take the time to get to know you and your feedback - so much to the point that you won’t realize, while you’re trying to politely crush your bagel sandwich at 9am, that they have been at it for five hours already. Just don’t suggest, for example, that they “pre-prepare” eggs to improve speed/efficiency. Those eggs will be cracked on the spot. Always. Period.
Creating a valuable customer experience is at the core of Bottoms Up, and according to Joan, the people of Baltimore reward value. We agree. Like most people here, we enjoy traveling for experiences - especially food - when we have a connection to the people behind it. In any city where you can easily spend $5 on a latte, we appreciate that Michelle and Joan are intentional in offering a handmade product for $2, while emphasizing the importance of their customers. True facts: We have been told several times that if we can’t find a bagel at one of their many retailers throughout the city (The Room, Handlebar Cafe, Modern Cook Shop, Dovecote Cafe, Chuck’s Trading Post…), we can just text them. We'd like to think we're exceptional, but it's not us...it's them. #customerservice.
In just under a year, we watched as Bottom’s Up grew from preparing, baking and boiling bagels and curing lox in their own kitchen (thanks to Maryland’s cottage food business law*) to signing on as the second member of the new B-More Kitchen incubator space. In between, they found creative ways to increase their production capacity by working out of community churches and community centers in order to meet the continuous demand, while also navigating the complex permitting and licensing procedures. Michelle also cites the City Seeds School of Food Program as useful in terms of outlining the different steps involved to obtain all necessary permits and networking with other small food businesses.
Like many young food entrepreneurs, Joan and Michelle started and ran the ‘Bottoms Up’ operation in parallel to their ‘day’ jobs. It wasn’t until September that Joan was able to walk away from her 15-year career in grants and research administration in order to pursue Bottoms Up full time. Michelle still continues providing marketing and consulting services to non-profits.
But still, we wanted to know how you get to this place where you can really start to throw everything into the risky food industry. For Bottoms Up, the timing of completion of B-More Kitchen in September 2016, aligned well with their own growth, which Joan says they have planned for since day one. This planning has been essential to their success, and made it feasible to secure the kitchen membership (starting with nights and weekends only, and working their way up to full-time). The kitchen, a 10,000-square foot space, is “committed to providing the city’s food entrepreneurs with the space and the resources they need to grow their businesses”.
We toured the space, learning just how labor intensive this process is; it takes time to make the dough and ensure it rises just right before boiling and baking these bagels to perfection. Thanks to the additional equipment and space, Michelle says they are now able to do in 15 minutes what used to take two 8-10 hour days. A win as well for bagel fans, as they continue to increase their list of retailers throughout the city.
We’re stoked to watch our friends continuously ramp up their bagel game and we’ll be following along on this journey. As we see spaces like Mount Vernon Marketplace and R House join the scene, boasting opportunities for small food businesses, we’re curious to see if and how this translates into accessibility and value for both owners and patrons. We have lots of questions...
Before a massive bagel lunch session (sesame bagel with lox and green onion cream cheese...), we wrapped it up with some quick life tips and hard hitting questions about Baltimore celebrities and chef collaborations:
Lox Lifehack tip: Pricing a relatively “ordinary” product at slightly “premium” price due to its handmade, labor-intensive nature can be difficult in terms of finding a balance. However, on a recent trip to Giant, Michelle learned that their lox, which they cure themselves and is insanely delicious and not too salty, is slightly cheaper than the supermarket brand. So hunt them down and get your lox….!
If you had to chose one Baltimore celebrity (not John Waters) to eat your bagel, who would it be and what bagel would you give them?
Joan: I would give Divine the She-Ra sandwich: double eggs, double cheese, bacon and pork roll on a bagel of her choice.
Michelle: I’d go for Sonja Sohn, and give her the Loxed Up: lox, green onion cream cheese and capers on an everything bagel.
Who is your dream celebrity chef bagel collaboration?
Joan: Jose Andres. A lox gel and caper foam with a bagel mist. And also The Charmery. Everything bagel ice cream, anyone?
Michelle: Anything with Cat Cora (raised eyebrow). We also were in Poland this fall and met Nava of Bagel Mama in Krakow. He’s a New Yorker running one of three bagel shops in the country. Poland is birthplace of the bagel! We plan to do something with him in the future.
Stay up to date with Bottoms Up on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We promised we’d keep our mouths shut but they have some cool things coming up on 2017. All we’ll say is they have been playing around with a smoker and there’s some chatter about a pop-up/history lesson in bagelry at Nava’s Bagel Mama in Krakow, with Bottom’s Up bringing some high-gluten flour into the bagel motherland.
*The Maryland Cottage Food Law “allows citizens to operate from a home-based kitchen or on-farm food processing kitchen to produce "cottage foods". A “cottage food" product is a non-hazardous food sold at a farmer's market or public events.”