By Karen Baar
How many bagels can you make from 60,000 pounds of flour?
The answer — about 240,000 — is just one of many bits of bagel trivia shared by Cliff Nordquist, ’90, and James O’Connell, ’90, two former classmates who founded Just Bagels in 1992. The New York City-based bakery is located in Hunts Point, an industrial-looking neighborhood in the South Bronx that is the hub for a multitude of wholesale food manufacturers.
It’s a sunny spring day and the clean, orderly bakery is filled with the aroma of baking bread. Huge mixers churn out thousands of bagels per hour. After they are proofed to activate the yeast and chilled to give them a hard crust, the bagels are plunged into a kettle holding 1,100 gallons of boiling water before they are baked, cooled, and packaged.
What distinguishes the company’s bagels is the water bath. “Boiling them is what makes them old-fashioned,” explains Nordquist. “The big guys, our competitors, just steam them.” And when it comes to boiling, this company means business. Take, for example, its slogan: “Bagels Ain’t Bagels Unless They’re Just Bagels. The Finest Old Fashion Water Bagels Anywhere.
And, it seems, everywhere. With its 100 employees, Just Bagels churns out a staggering 18,000 dozen bagels per day. Although plain bagels are their biggest seller, they have 15 varieties, including the popular energy/multigrain bagel, which is the number-one choice at Starbucks, one of the company’s regular customers. Their client list also includes Fresh Direct, Whole Foods, and United Airlines. Just Bagels products also can be found in Barnes & Noble cafes in all 50 states and, under the brand name Ray’s New York Bagels in Stop and Shop stores. It’s an impressive list — one that led the company to be featured as one of New York’s Top Entrepreneurs by Crain’s Communications in 2006.
Now poised to enter the international market, Just Bagels had humble beginnings. Nordquist, who attended Southern on a football scholarship, was a communications major. “They had an excellent program and I did well,” he recalls. But getting a communications job in Manhattan proved daunting. Instead, he took a job selling copiers. “It was brutal. I was there for four months and didn’t sell a single copier. Everyone already had one.
I gave away a shredder at cost, just to say I sold something.”
Nordquist soon went to work for his father, who owned a construction business. While on the job, he was approached by a man who wanted to open a bagel store. Nordquist borrowed $50,000 from his mother and opened a small store with his partner on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx.
After only three weeks, his partner left. “My girlfriend, now wife, had faith in me and suggested I buy him out,” he recalls. With another loan from his mother, Nordquist did just that. Then came the kicker.
“About a week later, I learn that my former partner is opening a bagel store about a mile from me with someone else. He even tried to steal the three or four accounts I had picked up,” he adds.
Enter James O’Connell, Nordquist’s former roommate at Southern. “We’d kept in touch,” says O’Connell, “ but I didn’t expect him to need help. I was surprised when he called and said, ‘I have this bagel store. I don’t know what I’m doing. Do you want to make bagels?’” O’Connell had majored in criminology and was working as a security guard at the G. Fox department store while on the waiting list to become a U.S. marshal. He drove down to the factory, liked what he saw, and bought into the business. “I was very excited about it,” he says. “There was an exploding market for bagels.” Today, O’Connell’s in charge of all bakery operations — “The staff, the floor, production, the ingredients,” he rattles off.
Neither Nordquist nor O’Connell had ever been especially interested in business. Nordquist, who grew up in Brooklyn, had won seven football scholarships and chose Southern because he’d been told the ratio of women to men was 7 to 1. “I figured it could be a lot of fun,” he laughs. “I have only fantastic memories of Southern. It was the best four years of my life. We all had a ball.”
But there was clearly more to it than good times.
Looking back, he says he “grew up” at Southern. “I learned a lot. I lived on my own. I had a job.” (He was a bouncer at the now-defunct New Haven club, Boppers). “I paid my own bills. I learned how to be an adult, and that gave me the confidence to go out and start my own company.”
Obviously, Southern meant a lot to him; his diploma hangs on the wall of his cluttered office, amidst New York Yankees posters, articles about Just Bagels, and pictures of his two young daughters.
O’Connell was also an athlete; he was on the wrestling team the entire time he was at Southern, including a period as captain. “Don Knauff, coach of the wrestling staff, had a big influence on my life,” he says. “He helped me get into Southern, and he also helped me get through school. My studies were never that strong.”
Despite their unlikely business background, the bagel bakers made it work. Soon after O’Connell joined, Just Bagels had lines of customers around the block. They bought a second store, and in a sweet little piece of revenge, when Nordquist’s first partner went out of business, they bought his shop, too.
But three stores became too much for them to handle, and they reached a turning point. Says Nordquist, “We were swamped. I knew that my sales ability could take it to the next level, but I didn’t have enough money.”
They decided to sell the business, but the first person to answer the newspaper advertisement was Charlie Contreras, a former banker. Slapping his hands together, Nordquist continues: “We hit it off like this. Charlie knew how to run a company. He had brains, accounting experience, and money to invest.” Instead of buying the business, Contreras bought in as the third partner.
The men have a warm, joking camaraderie and what Nordquist describes as “the best partnership on the planet.” When Contreras sticks his head into Nordquist’s office, but refuses to sit in on our meeting, Nordquist teases, “You’ll have to excuse him. He can’t eat any bagels because he’s on a low-carbohydrate diet, so he’s kind of grumpy.”
The key to the successful partnership is mutual respect. “None of us steps on each other’s toes,” says Nordquist. “I am the face and voice of the company. I handle sales and customer service. Jimmy runs the bakery, and Charlie takes care of the money and the books. It’s perfect.”
History would seem to agree. When Contreras bought in, the three men leased a 10,000-square-foot building for 10 years. Four years later, in 2000, they’d already outgrown it, so they bought a 17,000-square-foot building. Three years after that, they bought the building next door. Now, they are planning to buy another building across the street.
The product line will soon be carried in Israel. The next market for their product? China. “They love bagels there. Not too long ago, nobody knew about bagels outside of New York. Now, they’re becoming known internationally,” Nordquist explains.
Great as it is, Nordquist says that owning such a successful company is not without its worries. “In this business, if you miss one day, you hear from your customers. ‘Where’s my order? Ok, see you…’ and you’re out of business. We run 24/7. The only days we close are Christmas and New Year’s.”
Yet neither partner would give it up. “The last thing I’d ever have thought was that I’d be in the bagel business,” says O’Connell. “But having your own business is wonderful. We have a lot of fun. Life is very good.”
In fact, it’s just plain delicious.
Just Bagels is now being distributed in all 50 states and growing.
Any questions about products or delivery call Cliff at 718-328-9700
Copyright©1998 Bagels Ain’t Bagels
Unless They’re Just Bagels