The hole truth: meet the bagel baker rolling through a pandemic
“The hardest part is when you realise that everything you’ve been working on for years could potentially vanish overnight, through no wrongdoing of your own.” Ben Vaughan, Mile End Bagels.
Image: Mile End Bagels.
- Mile End Bagels is a popular Fitzroy bakery
- Owner Ben Vaughan was getting ready to open a new café in Melbourne’s CBD when COVID-19 struck
- Ben put his city plans on hold, working with ANZ to open a tuckshop-style café in Brunswick
New York City, 2009, 6am: Ben Vaughan was about to embark on a life-changing adventure. As it began to snow, he walked into a corner deli and ordered a bagel with cream cheese. A quintessential New York experience: the simplicity of a bagel in the early morning, in the city that never sleeps.
Fast-forward to 2016: Ben and his business partner Michael Fee opened the doors to their new business venture, Mile End Bagels, a café and bakery in Fitzroy, where the magic of that New York bagel has been reimagined.
The simplicity of a great sandwich
Each day, hungry locals line up for avocado on sesame, chicken salad on poppyseed, and brisket pastrami on everything. The bread is baked in-house, in a custom-made wood-fired bagel oven (the first of its kind in Australia), built with the help of two Canadian stonemasons.
“That oven is the heart and soul of our business,” Ben says. “That’s where everything starts, every day. Fresh-made, wood-fired bagels.”
On their busiest days, Ben and the team will bake a thousand bagels. So it made perfect sense to expand and share the simple joy of their sandwiches further afield – a bagel shop and café tucked down a laneway in Melbourne’s CBD.
Rising to a new challenge
Having signed a lease on a property at the end of 2019, Ben worked with his ANZ business banker, Luke McGowan, to secure a loan. Everything was going to plan.
And then COVID-19 hit.
“We had to make some pretty tough decisions and accept that it probably wasn’t going to happen,” Ben explains. “All the time and money we’d spent on designing it, paying the lease and bond, realising it was going to go out the window.”
Ben realised despite the costs, the smartest business decision for him was to leave emotions out of it, let go, and find a way to move forward. This wasn’t the right time for the Melbourne CBD.
Image: Mile End Bagels.
Rolling to the suburbs
But Ben knew there was a market for bagels and Mile End Bagels would need to go where the customers were. After researching suitable locations within a 5km radius of the Fitzroy store, he settled on a small takeaway shop in Brunswick. He secured a lease and fitted out the shop in three months.
“It’s essentially a food truck,” Ben says. “You’ve got a little takeaway window where you can place your order and then collect when it’s ready.”
Ben and Luke also worked together to get a loan for a van to deliver fresh-baked bagels from the Fitzroy store to Brunswick each morning. However, when they were going through the numbers, they realised Ben could use the van to go directly to the market to buy produce, instead of wholesaling their vegetables through a third-party provider.
“We realised we’d probably save around 20 per cent each week, which is essentially the loan repayments on the van, with a bit of extra cash too,” Ben says.
For Ben, opening a new shop during a pandemic was an interesting challenge.
“The hardest part is when you realise that everything you’ve been working on for years could potentially vanish overnight, through no wrongdoing of your own.”
But now he has a positive perspective on how 2020 has played out. “It’s been a great opportunity to try something new,” he says.
Ben has been an ANZ customer since 2016 when the bank helped finance the fit-out and lease of the Fitzroy store. Luke has been Ben’s bank manager since August 2019.
“It’s really good having one person you can call or email when you’ve got a question or idea,” Ben says on working with Luke.
“They’ll either shut it down or go ‘Great, let’s look at what we need to do’. It just helps when someone knows your history.”
ANZ was also able to provide Ben with an overdraft for JobKeeper payments when the effects of COVID-19 were starting to hit.
“If you’ve got 10 staff on JobKeeper, that’s $15,000 a fortnight you’ve got to come up with,” Luke says.
"To help with your cash flow, you can use our funding or your overdraft and repay it after the governement reimburses you."
The future of bagels in Melbourne is looking bright. Ben’s planning to open a third location while the pièce de résistance will be the flagship city shop - someday.
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