How a self-taught baker became a pro bagel consultant

She's helped people open shops around the world

Published February 19, 2021 7:00AM (EST)

 (Bobbi Lin / Food52)
(Bobbi Lin / Food52)

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Making bagels is sort of like practicing law. At least, it is according to lawyer and full-time "bagel consultant" Beth George.

The 57-year-old is the mastermind behind Fair Lawn, N.J.–based BYOB Bagels (the acronym is for both "Build Your Own Business" and "Be Your Own Boss"), a bagel-focused consulting firm that has helped open more than 60 bagel shops across five continents.

"A lawyer starts with a problem and has to figure out what went wrong, how to repair it, and how to move forward," says George. Her experience teaching people how to start a bagel business is similar: One "could boil and bake bagels the standard way, but it's very expensive, labor-intensive, and difficult to scale that model." George does teach her clients the standard method of bagel making, but she also sings the praises of a "boil-in-place" system, a term she coined herself for "boiling and baking in a self-contained oven." Using less energy, space, and water than the standard boil-and-bake system, the boil-in-place proprietary maneuver involves "water pouring automatically into a very hot oven and cascading down stainless-steel panels to soak the bagels." George has also developed an accessible business model that's helped countless entrepreneurs dive in to the industry. Her lessons include vendor and ingredient sourcing options, overall financial considerations, and marketing efforts, among other details necessary to opening a small food business.

Though George is an experienced self-taught baker, BYOB isn't a formal bagel store (still, locals can purchase her creations online), but rather helps hopeful entrepreneurs open their own shops. While other bagel shop owners effectively offer consulting services, George stands apart by providing her clients with a step-by-step guide to enter the bagel world, including a highly adaptable recipe, alongside additional tools and ideas needed to get their businesses off the ground.

Some of the shops she helped get off the ground aren't in places you'd typically expect to find a great bagel, like Florida and Massachssetts, as well as Sweden and Australia; she's also consulted in New York, for Bake a Bagel and Bantam Bagels, where bagel competition is fierce.

Although the intricacies of George's company and her ability to marry two seemingly dissimilar careers are worthy of exploration, her origin story when it comes to bagels leans personal. George started making bagels at home in 2006 to satisfy her son Spencer's cravings. They couldn't simply go to a local bagel shop: In an attempt to combat Spencer's ADHD without pharmaceuticals, George found research supporting the idea that reduced gluten could soothe certain types of behavioral disorders. Indeed, without wheat, Spencer's behavior improved. But he missed bagels.

George created a spelt-flour bagel in her home kitchen. (Though it contains gluten, "spelt is considered an ancient wheat, one that Spencer could actually digest," she explains.) So successful was the result — and so potent her desire to help others in similar situations — that she decided to trademark her recipe and scale up the project into a business through the help of Frank Mauro, bagel-making-equipment salesman and now her business partner.

Following Mauro's encouragement and the positive feedback she'd received from friends and family, George eventually decided to shift the business to emphasize her consulting abilities in addition to her unique recipes, which now embrace commercial wheat, by setting up a company that offers advice on all aspects of bagel making. It was a risky move: George had never opened a store herself and had spent the bulk of her career practicing law, but Mauro's experience and the seeming success of her creations convinced her to take the plunge.

George's process isn't a quick seminar. When she takes on a client, they enter into a yearlong contract. "I don't just take on anybody," she explains, detailing that she and her potential client interview each other at their first meeting. "I have to make sure that they have the means to finance a business that is going to cost them between $200,000 and $400,000." After the initial meeting, George advises potential clients to scout for possible bakery locations within a recommended price range. "You can't go on pure passion — you have to make sure that you can pay the bills and are making money," she says.

Much of the consulting process isn't even about making bagels. Next steps involve conversations about everything from square footage and paying for utilities to marketing plans. According to George, it usually takes the duration of the 12-month consultation period for one of her clients to open a store. Her advice clearly works: Of the 60 bagel shops that she has helped open since first establishing her business, only one has closed as of 2021. "The woman just had a baby, then COVID-19 hit, and she decided it was too much to balance," explains George, who has also helped an additional 10 store owners incorporate bagels into their menus, improve their already-on-offer baked goods, or build separate bagel enterprises in addition to their existing shops.

It may seem strange to some business-minded folks that BYOB doesn't indefinitely capitalize off each store George helps open. Although she receives a standard payment from clients for the consultation process, she doesn't operate their stores as franchises; ultimately, she thinks they have a tendency to kill mom-and-pop shops.

As for those sought-after bagel recipes, which are at the heart of each business she helps launch, don't hold your breath. She won't share her secrets with folks that aren't her clients, but does voice her devotion to using only whole-food ingredients and her distaste for bagel mixes. In total, she teaches clients seven formulations for bagels that can be changed depending on the desired flavor profile. Montreal-style bagels, for example, are baked following one formulation, while New York style follows another. "It starts with a plain bagel," she says. "If you understand the science behind it, you can do an infinite number of mix-ins and toppings."

Speaking of toppings: Her consultancy work also involves teaching about schmears and assisting with the ideation of menus as they relate to the greater business plan. "You need to know your menu, how much you're going to charge, and how many bagels of a kind you think you'll sell each day," she explains. "And then you'll know how much money you are going to make." Following menu-related talks, the prospective store owner is asked to look into a state's minimum-wage requirements and more.

While her favorite bagel shop is Orwashers Bakery in Manhattan, who she did not consult for, George's go-to bagel is of course one of her own creations: a toasted za'atar bagel, which she drizzles with extra virgin olive oil from Beirut and smears with French butter.

* * *

Clearly, George's entire business rests on the steadfast popularity of bagels. Which begs the question: What is it about a simple bread product that originated among the Jewish communities of Poland that is so special, let alone worthy of a consulting business with outreach all over the world? Could it, perhaps, be its long, intricate, and multinational history? The fact that it's one of the only types of bread that is boiled before baked? Or maybe, it's all about its thought-out structure. That hole, after all, serves a purpose: It allows the bagel to bake faster than other breads its size, and makes it easier to stack a few on a wooden pole, which is how street vendors used to sell them.

"I think about this a lot: What makes the bagel so different?," wonders George. "It is super resilient. There's something about it that you can't really describe — a depth of flavor that comes through." Though the process is simple, requiring just five ingredients, that's also where bagels present the ultimate challenge to the maker, only adding to the food's mystical qualities: "You could get it wrong by getting tripped up on that simplicity"

It always comes back to George's lawyer-like attention to detail, best exhibited in her advice to hopeful bagel shop owners — though it does feel like this could apply to ventures outside of bread, as well: "Do your homework first, because you want this to be your dream, not your nightmare."

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