Michael Madigan crosses the street like a New Yorker. As we passed his KitchenCru – a culinary incubator designed for small food startups to create and build products – on the way to his Bowery Bagels shop opening next week, I couldn’t help but think Madigan has a reason to walk fast and not bother with petty things like crosswalks. KitchenCru, open for nearly a year and utilized by thirty-eight regular clients, has kept him plenty busy. But being obsessive about quality and even more fanatical about the creating the right New York bagel (he’s originally from Brooklyn) has added one more thing to his ever-growing list of additions to the Portland food scene.
Located across the street from his KitchenCru space in Northwest Portland, Bowery Bagels, slated for an official opening of June 16, will be modeled after a typical grab-and-go New York bagel spot, but with a unique twist. Along the walls will be a few shelves and refrigerated space for the products being lovingly created across the street at his culinary incubator. With a creative, detail-oriented thinking developed over several years in the software industry, Madigan is also equally genuine as he is motivated. When I recently sat down with him to talk about KitchenCru and his latest culinary startup, I found comparing to-do lists. Two jobs and an occasional gym trip, Kat? I thought to myself. That’s all you’re going to do today?
Tell Me About The Bagels
Q: What made you decide to start a culinary incubator? What was your idea in creating it?
A: Well, it did not spring forth from my head, that’s for sure. It was kind of evolutionary process. I spent twenty-six years in IT, then took a year off, built a house, tried to figure out what I wanted to do next. I moved out to Portland in 1987. I was looking into alternative energy sources, everything from solar to tidal energy and things like that. That industry wasn’t mature yet, so it wasn’t a good fit. Then I started thinking I wanted to do something with food and wine. Food has always been an important part of my life, going back to family days, and moving out to Oregon when we did. We started jumping onto the wave of farmer’s markets, buying a whole animal, learning to butchering it, beer making, wine making, and cheese making. We had the access to the ingredients and the know-how here in Portland.
So it had always been a passion of mine, and the year I took off I spent a little time doing pro bono consulting for some friends of mine. One owned a wine bar, another who owned a little bistro. I recognized the fact there were a lot of very talented people in food that didn’t have the business acumen or the capital to launch a successful business. And so that got me along the track of thinking, well what would work? What would be a good way to combine what I’m good at with what I love and come out with an end product? If you think back to 2009-2010, that’s when food carts were everywhere, in every article. And one day I asked myself, “I wonder where these people are cooking?” That was kind of the genesis that got us down the path to KitchenCru.
Q: How has KitchenCru changed in the year it has been open? What have you learned about your customers/process since the opening?
A: One answer is that I didn’t really know what to expect. It was a different career. There really was no business plan to follow. In terms of what changed in a year—the thing that’s happened that I didn’t expect to happen so quickly was the sense of community that formed among our client base. I thought that was going to really be something that I would have to work at and encourage. And we did, but it kind of happened organically. Partly because people were working next to each other who have the same schedule. The one thing we did encourage that was important was getting everyone to use one another’s products. So, we have one client who uses Jacobsen Salt in his product, because they make their salt here, lots our clients are using Tails and Trotter’s pork products because they make all their charcuterie here. For instance, when PieKu Pie came here, [she] was using shortening, and has now developed her recipe around the lard from Tails and Trotters. That kind of thing goes on all the time. That sense of community, it’s a little food ecosystem contained inside these walls. It’s been gratifying—it’s one of the things that keeps me excited about it. Watching that happening.
Q: So what gave you the idea to start a culinary incubator? Did you see someone else do it that you wanted to model your business after?
A: Actually, I was only aware of one other one down in San Francisco. It’s called La Cocina. And it’s a not-for-profit with an endowment. And their mission is to have Latina women develop small food-based businesses. It’s a shared kitchen, but it’s a different model. I only found one that was truly an incubator when I researched it (that was not just a commissary) and it was a woman who was about four months ahead of me. It was in Houston, Texas, called The Kitchen Incubator. She was really helpful on the phone about what she had planned. Her implementation strategy was a little different—she had three different kitchens and you would rent out one kitchen for a certain amount of time. I looked at that as a potential model, but the space was too limiting. I wanted people to have access to the equipment. We have some fairly large equipment over here that they didn’t over there. So just for us, the entire shared environment made more sense than saying “Okay, you have this 500 square foot kitchen for however many hours you need it.” That was the only one I was aware of then.
Since then, three or four others have popped up around the country and I’ve been happy to do for them what Lucrece Borrego (of Kitchen Incubator) did for us in terms of talking to them on the phone or email to say “Well, here’s what we’ve learned.” And of course to answer your question directly, I’m not near crazy enough to open a restaurant. Even if I did have that idea, my wife would probably beat it out of me. I’ve seen others do it, but I’m not jumping into that at forty-five, especially in this town, with all these talented folks here. So again it became how do I combine what I’m good at with what I love: well, I have that love of food and wine, and what I’ve enjoyed and was good at was when I was a startup, and helping other startups and launching businesses. That’s what melded it all together.
Q: Alright, let’s talk bagels. Walk me through the process of developing Bowery Bagels. As a New Yorker, did you feel like it was a niche that needed to be filled in Portland?
A: I moved out here twenty-five years ago, and there was not a good bagel to be had. So, I got my hands on a few old bagel recipes from some of my mother’s old cookbooks, and over time, came up with a pretty good bagel recipe that we’d make three or four times a year, just at home on special occasions. Last year when we opened KitchenCru, one of the things we wanted to do was use the infrastructure to spin off one of our own ideas. One of the first things I did once the doors were open was say, “Alright, I’ve got all this equipment, I’m going to learn to use it I’m going to scale out my bagel recipe.” And I did exactly that, and I went through what everybody goes through—learning that the equipment has a big impact on the recipe. For instance, when you’re using a 40 or 60 quart Hobart mixer, the low speed on that is very different from speed number two on a home kitchen mixer. I had to tweak the recipe—not ingredients, but on time and things like that, and take advantage of what this equipment could really do. I generated some bagels and went out and actually booked two wholesale accounts and planned on doing it in May, and then all the sudden in June, word got out on KitchenCru and we just got really busy signing up clients and learning how to operate a shared use kitchen. We still had the bagel idea in the back of our mind. Then, back in December the news about Kettleman’s happened. And I thought okay, I know Portland. I know what’s going to happen. If Einstein came in and said “We’re not changing a damn thing but the name,” you know people in Portland are going to be like, “it’s not a Portland product, therefore I’m not going to buy it anymore.” And then when they went forward and said they were going to change the recipes, it became a no brainer. We had our weekly pop-ups we only advertised on social media, and had a fantastic response. You look at what’s available, and there’s an opportunity here. And we partnered with Stumptown Coffee for their coffee. One reason we decided to go with Stumptown is that they’re as fanatical about their coffee as we are about our bagels.
Q: Did you talk to any New York bagel chefs before you decided to open?
A: Nope. I am very much like that—I just said, if the idea feels good, we’re gonna try it. That’s kind of what KitchenCru was, on a little bit of a larger scale. Since we had KitchenCru, we’ve done a lot of things, we’re self-teaching ourselves.
Q: What’s your definition of an authentic New York bagel?
A: It has to be boiled. It can’t be soft, a little crackle to the crust, it can’t be tough, either. It has to have a crackle—I don’t call it a crust, I call it a crackle. The inside needs to be chewy without being dense. You shouldn’t have to toast it unless it’s a day old or more. Personally, I only toast a bagel if it’s a day or older. Or, if it’s been frozen. A good bagel doesn’t need to be toasted. But if people like them, we’ll of course toast them. It should have a tangy malty sweetness to it without being over powering. I took in a catering chef to taste the bagels and he opened the box and said, “Is that whole wheat flour?” and I told him, “No, the color is the malt extract,’ and he said, “Well, I’ve never bought a bagel that color,” and I told him, “Well you’ve never had a bagel from New York then.” They’re not big, either, no hamburger buns with holes in them. Ours are about 4 ounces. Beyond that, I believe there are certain things that don’t belong on bagels—we won’t make blueberry or chocolate chip bagels. As a purist, I did not plan on making a cinnamon raisin bagel, but the demand in wholesale was too high. So I came up with what I believe is a superior—we’re calling it a Cinnamon Raisin Spice bagel.
Q: I’ve seen you’ve been playing with some pretty non-traditional flavors though, like a kimchi schmear?
A: Yes, even though I’m a traditionalist, I think there’s room for a little bit of innovation that will hold true to both what a bagel should be, but also hold true to what Portland would want.
*Photo credit: Brandon Waller