As a warehouse worker, Dan Herbst was no stranger to burning the midnight oil; then, a layoff sidelined him from his routine. That's when he joked to his longtime friend Geoff Hardman that, "Maybe I'll just start making bagels." Hardman, who was constantly searching in vain for locally sourced bagels for business meetings, stopped in his tracks. A few cocktails later, the wheels were set in motion for Cleveland Bagel Co., despite a decided lack of culinary experience between the pair.
These days, the only difference in Herbst's schedule is that now when he wakes up before dawn, it's to head into the kitchen as the chief baker of one of the city's biggest breakfast food success stories.
"Geoff and I agreed, if we were really going to do this, we wanted a bagel empire," jokes Herbst, or as he likes to refer to himself, the Bagelman.
Herbst and Hardman first showed up at farmers markets in early 2013, selling somewhere shy of a couple dozen bagels. Today, they're slinging more than 60 to 70 dozen per week. And with their rapidly expanding clientele, they now provide inventory to more than a half-dozen restaurants downtown and on the near-westside. And that's in addition to their regular vending gigs.
Like many other local small-batch food ops, Cleveland Bagel Co. capitalizes on the power of social media by sharing sharp, tongue-in-cheek commentary that often includes cameos by area culinary partners. The community building is only magnified by working alongside these vendors at markets, outlets where Herbst and Hardman have become poster bagel-makers and living testaments to the power of such events as launch pads for niche products.
As boomerangs who returned to the city a decade ago — Herbst from Staten Island, Hardman from Boston — the ongoing influence of their out-of-state stints goes well beyond baking. For Herbst, it was natural-born working-class hustle that helped him make ends meet between acting auditions, music gigs and waiting tables in New York. It's one of the reasons the duo has been adamant since the launch about keeping the no-frills bagels affordable.
"Cleveland's such a blue-collar town," Herbst says, recounting his days out of state when being able to afford a bagel was a luxury. "I feel like I owe people a product that's accessible."
The company's baked fare errs on the side of tradition. By imbuing their products with the malt and sugar crunch of Montreal-style bagels and the water-boiled tenderness of New York-style bagels, the pair hopes their iteration becomes entwined with the city's identity.
"The ultimate goal is that 20 years from now, someone has a bagel that is not necessarily from us but is similar to our bagel, and they say, 'That's a Cleveland-style bagel,'" Hardman explains. "You have New York style, you have Montreal style. I would love if one day there could be a Cleveland-style bagel."
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