How to Sell Bagels in Saudi Arabia

Question: I am trying to start up a bagel cafe in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The idea is to find someone who has experience with the bagel-making process. I can’t believe how hard it is to find someone who can help! Both my husband and I have experience in the hospitality industry and are ready to go. We need someone to come over and train our bakers. Any ideas?

Answer: Is there really not even one bagel maker in the entire kingdom? Apparently the lack of something to hold that lox and schmear has not gone unnoticed, according to this post on an American expatriate blog. Given the popularity of bread in Arab cultures, a bagel cafe seems like it might be an idea whose time has come. In fact, it looks like a Riyadh bagel shop opened just a couple of months ago. That might be one logical place for you to start.

Bagels are notoriously tricky to make, so you do need a bagel expert rather than a generic baker, says Ricky Eisen, a New York City baker and caterer who owns Between the Bread. “The quality of the water is very important,” she says, because bagels are boiled before they’re baked. “That’s why New York City bagels taste different than those made in most other cities, even in the U.S.” The equipment—including conveyor belts, fermentation proofers, boiling vats, and pizza ovens—is also quite specialized.

If you’re looking for an American to move permanently to Saudi Arabia to be your bagel maker, that’s going to be a tough order for several reasons, including residence and work visa requirements, says Lawrence M. Harding, an international business consultant and founder of High Street Partners. “It would be extremely challenging and costly,” he says. You might recruit an experienced individual for a short-term assignment—say, 60 to 90 days—and augment future training with videoconferencing sessions that would allow your master bagel baker to stay connected with local staff as needed.

Robert Wemischner, a professional baking instructor at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College and the author of several books on the food business, suggests that you contact U.S. culinary and baking programs and ask that they recommend suitable graduates. “Most of the schools maintain job boards, or more anecdotally recommend students, for positions that come over the transom,” he says. LA Trade-Tech or the San Francisco Baking Institute are two places to start.

Other possibilities might include partnering with a successful U.S. bagel business—Eisen mentions New York City bagel kings H&H or a flour supplier such as Giusto’s or King Arthur. Such an arrangement could potentially give you access to both expertise and employees.

Once you find a bagel maker, make sure you plan enough time to refine the recipe. It will take even an expert some trial and error to adjust to the local water and other ingredients, Wemischner warns, “particularly the flour, which differs in protein levels from one part of the world to another.”

And be prepared to pay a premium even for a couple of months, since you will have to take into account the difficulty of a major move and the culture shock for an American going into an extremely different culture. Matthew Gilbert, of Los Angeles, is a self-employed corporate trainer and business communications instructor who has considered taking short-term professorships in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. American universities typically advertise those positions on specialized job boards and include perks such as housing in four-star hotels and “pretty ridiculous pay—like $30,000 for a month,” he says.

If bringing someone to you proves too costly, you or your spouse might consider doing the reverse: spending a few months in Brooklyn, or maybe in Montreal, where bakers use an alternative to the boiling-water method, says Malcolm M. Knapp, a longtime food service consultant based in New York City. “You need to learn how to do it yourselves, to a high degree,” he points out, since you’ll need to do quality control and instruct new employees. And who knows? Maybe by breaking bagels in Saudi Arabia, you’ll get to play a part in breaking down stereotypes, too.

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