Berea Couple’s Entrepreneurial Ambitions Center on a Bagel Cafe

Written by Beverly Fortune
Originally posted in LexGo

The Native Bagel Co. had been open five days, and Lisa Caldwell Reiss was there for a second time, bringing her friend Loretta Reynolds.

“They’re delicious,” Caldwell-Reiss said, breaking off a piece of a sesame bagel and spreading it generously with maple-bacon cream cheese. “They’re not bready, like bagels you buy in the store. These are boiled before they’re baked, so they’re really chewy.”

At a small sidewalk table out front, Charla Hamilton was enjoying an everything bagel with vegetable cream cheese, one of about a half-dozen spreads on the menu, including honey rosemary and roasted jalapeno. “The cream cheese has real vegetables. I can taste the cucumbers,” she said.

Hamilton had driven from Lexington to meet her friend Carl Craft, a Native Bagel devotee who discovered the New York-style bagels last year at the Berea farmers market. “They have a lot of flavor,” Craft said.

Entrepreneur Katie Startzman and her husband and business partner, Michael, opened The Native Bagel Co. last week at 105 Boone Street in downtown Berea after a year of selling bagels from a food cart at the Berea Farmers Market and delivering bagels to offices and businesses in this picturesque college town.

Startzman makes seven flavors of bagels daily - sesame seed, poppy seed, cheese, salt, garlic, cinnamon-raison and everything. Sometimes she gets creative, but for now, she’s sticking to the seven tried-and-true “‘till we get up to speed.”

Startzman, 39, graduated from Berea College in 2000 as an English major and became a knitwear designer. She published “The Knitted Slipper Book” in 2013.

By last year, she was ready for a change: “I was tired of spending so much time on the computer and by myself.”

She participated in a 10-week entrepreneurship course given by the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development. “They lead you through what your personal values are and help you think through a business that matches your personal values with how you want to live your life,” she said.

Startzman is an avid home cook, so her ideas turned to food. She thought about having a food truck, but that would mean working night hours. She and Michael have two children: Julian, 15, and Avery, 11.

Eventually, she came around to bagels.

“There’s something about bagels,” she said. “It is a great canvas for lots of flavors, like fresh asparagus, fresh eggs and fresh herbs. Since I’m a gardener, it seemed like a base to start from,” she said.

To try out her idea, she made four dozen bagels one morning and had a pop-up give-away in Old Town that she advertised to friends on Facebook. The feedback was positive. With that encouragement, Startzman installed a certified commercial kitchen in her garage, built a small cart and began selling bagels at the farmers market.

“The farmers market was a way to dip our toe in to see how it would go to have our own business. The response was incredible,” she said. “When the business took off, I said, I think this could really be a business that could support our family.”

The Startzmans rented space in a 1920s building at Boone and Chestnut streets, painted the walls sparkling white, refinished the floors and installed contemporary lighting. They’re a few doors up from Noodle Nirvana and across the street from Clementine’s Bake Shop, which specializes in homemade croissants and bread.

“We’re part of a resurgence of interest in local food, the food economy and the food culture,” Startzman said. “People recognize what we’re trying to bring to Berea, and they’ve been supportive.”

A month ago, Michael, 41, also a Berea College graduate, quit his job with the Frankfort Plant Board, where he had worked as a graphic artist and web designer for 10 years, commuting from Berea every day. He grew up in Berea.

Now he’s in the business full-time, as is Katie’s sister, Abby Nittle. The first full-time non-family employee began work Monday.

Because the shop is small, bagels, brownies, cookies and muffins are made in the commercial kitchen in the Startzman’s garage, a few blocks away.

Dough is made the night before, shaped into bagels and put in the refrigerator overnight to rise. “That gives the yeast more time to develop, and that gives more flavor,” Startzman said.

She gets up at 4 a.m to cook the bagels, which are dropped into boiling water, 30 seconds each side, then baked in a commercial convection oven. She makes 26 dozen to 30 dozen at a time.

“We’re keeping up with demand. We haven’t sold out, which is good. I hate to sell out, but people understand. They are happy to come back and try another day.”

In addition to bagels and cream cheese, the menu includes breakfast and lunch sandwiches, two salads, cookies, brownies and muffins, and a coffee menu with brewed coffee, espresso, cappuccino, lattes and teas.

There’s a learning curve to starting a new business, and the Startzmans and Nittle are figuring out “how to pace ourselves, since we’re open five days a week instead of a few hours,” she said.

At the end of an 18- hour day, “We’re fried,” she said, laughing.

But here’s the trade off: “It is so energizing to come in here and hand someone a bagel. It makes me so happy.”