When New Zealand entered its first Covid-19 lockdown in late March 2020, the owner of Beam Me Up Bagels wondered if the successful business would survive.
“We closed the door and thought, ‘Maybe this is it,'” recalls co-owner Ellen McGregor.
In 2014, she and husband Chris started a venture to handcraft bagels in the kitchen of Dunedin’s Kakairai Rugby Football Club.
This was after Chris, who worked in the IT department, baked bagels for the family, says Ellen.
“We ate them all and they were delicious and he made more and we ate them all.”
The couple started selling bagels at the weekly Otago Farmers Market, selling out 200 by 10am on the first day.
Traditional New York-style bagels include garlic and sesame, jalapeno and cheddar, rosemary and olive oil.
They are sold pre-packed with high-quality locally sourced ingredients such as Havoc Farm Bacon and Whitestone Cheese.
Freshly baked bagels quickly gained wide acceptance.
A year later, MacGregor opened an attractive facility in the North East Valley (NEV), as the rugby club’s kitchen was becoming too small and the need for product consistency.
One morning, customers were queuing up the street amid bustling kitchens, retail stores and small cafes.
Opened the second store
Bagels were so popular that in mid-2019, the couple signed a lease for a second location on Great King Street in the city centre.
Chris worked very hard on the project to manage the fitting of these facilities with a larger cafe and kitchen, and two ovens instead of one.
The two had invested everything in the new store, and by the end of six months of coordination, they were under a lot of time pressure to get it done.
We opened the deal with peace of mind, but when the country went into lockdown to contain the Covid-19 virus, the deal was only 10 days old.
No one knew how long this would last. People were quarantined at home for almost five weeks, with only essential services operating. So no bagel shop.
Ellen says she calculated repaying the loan based on normal sales rather than being unable to operate due to the international pandemic.
Chris says the lockdown has given him some rest because he’s been so busy.
“In some ways it was a blessing,” he says.
During lockdown, Chris used his IT skills to set up an online system so customers could do contactless pickup when the country moved to Alert Level 3 in late April 2020.
The couple regularly refer to their “wonderful” staff and customers, some of whom have been regulars since the farmer’s market stall began.
During lockdown, Chris was impressed that customers purchased SOS vouchers to support Beam Me Up bagels.
Another factor that has helped the business survive the Covid crisis is that as hospitality facilities are allowed to reopen, their new, larger locations allow both staff and customers to physically distance themselves. That’s it. His smaller NEV store has been closed for about two months.
“They’ve really supported each other during that time,” Ellen says of the two stores.
The couple say the unexpected shutdown due to lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 has cut off their income. They are still paying off loans for downtown renovations.
“It wasn’t the heyday we really wanted,” says Ellen. However, she finds other surviving businesses are being forced to close.
“Everyone has gone through it. Covid has been hard all over the world,” she says. “After all these years, it’s still great to be here.”
A pandemic isn’t the first setback MacGregors has faced.
Projected revenue for Beam Me Up Bagels’ NEV building commercial lease was based on selling 25 bagels per day. Considering we sell hundreds of them at the market every Saturday, this seemed doable.
However, the bank refused the first loan. Family, friends and market stall neighbors kindly lent me money.
Chris and Ellen have three sons and have juggled family life and hard work.
The two have gone from being a sole employee to employing 28 staff, or about 18 full-time employees.
Some have been with them for six years, starting as students working at the NEV counter and now being trained as bakers.
Now machines mix the dough, but the staff didn’t want a machine to roll the bagels, preferring instead to hand-roll about 5,000 bagels a week.
Using local ingredients in its fillings has helped keep the venture resilient during a pandemic that has severely disrupted global supply chains, Ellen said.
Many of their early fillings were farmer’s market products. The market itself provided an opportunity to test their business model.
In 2017, they left the market stall so they could take their sons to rugby and focus on running the NEV store.
Ellen says she learned a lot.
Chris believes that success comes from stubbornness,” she points out.
In the early days of NEV, when trading was quiet at times, she suggested diversifying into slices. But her husband should stick to bagels, she said.
It took a few years to build momentum, but now it’s serving a loyal niche.
“Not everyone likes to eat bagels, but if they do, they’ll come see us,” says Ellen.
Chris has a long-term view. “Give them time to grow and really believe in the product and process.”
The couple appear humble and sincere, and are proud of what they have achieved in their eight years.
And despite impressive expansion, bagels are still sold out.
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https://dailyencourager.co.nz/beaming-up-bagels/ Make Bagels Shine – Daily Encouragement