Spoke Bagel rises to legendary status

Paul Mayne // Western NewsPerhaps nobody knows the story of the Spoke Bagel quite like Mark Leonard, Senior Manager (Hospitality Services). He attributes the ongoing success of the Spoke Café bagels, in large part, to the hard work of his staff and more than 90 students who work at what is quickly becoming a daily destination for students, staff and faculty.

For many on campus, Paresh Solanki has been an unseen part of their breakfast routine.

As owner of one of London’s Great Canadian Bagel stores for 22 years, Solanki rises early to make sure Western gets its bagel fix to the tune of 100 dozen every day. That means starting at the Commissioners Road West location around 2:30 a.m. and wrapping up around 5 a.m. After cooling, the bagels are packed and delivered by Solanki’s dad Ramesh and daughter Adia to The Spoke Café just after 6 a.m.

“It’s definitely a family business,” Solanki said.

The Spoke Bagel has become a tasty tradition on campus, but the journey to its current landmark status was far from guaranteed.

When the University Student’ Council (USC) initially launched the Spoke Café, it received less than rave reviews, recalled Mark Leonard, Senior Manager (Hospitality Services), who was Kitchen Manager at The Spoke and The Wave prior to the Spoke Café being added during the University Community Centre renovations in 2004.

“The café was desolate. We had very few customers; the staff just did homework,” he said. “It was very slow and we were doing small sales. We had bagels, but just the kind we got from our food suppliers; they were frozen.”

So how did the café go from struggling just to get by, to selling more than 6,000 bagels each week?

Leonard set up a meeting with the Bagel Deli in downtown London to discuss a possible partnership. The walk-in bagel business was more than happy to do their part to try and boost The Spoke’s bagel business.

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Sales grew – slowly. Leonard then asked Bagel Deli to create custom Spoke-only flavours.

“At that time, a lot of students lived downtown. Having the exact same product they carried in their store, the thought was that if we had something unique to us, it would be more of a destination to come to us for the bagels as opposed to the students just waiting until they catch their bus home and get it there,” Leonard explained. “They had a few recipes. So we started sampling a few different flavours – one was the Mushroom Swiss, which we still have today.”

For the next three to four years, sales were great. Students loved the specialty bagels and business. Then Bagel Deli suddenly closed its doors.

“That was a sad day for us. There wasn’t much advanced notice. We only had a few weeks to work things out,” Leonard said.

He thought about purchasing the Bagel Deli’s equipment and have his team start making the bagels themselves. It didn’t work out.

Enter the Great Canadian Bagel. Provided with the recipes for the Spoke-only bagels, the transition was fairly smooth – with one hitch.

“The Great Canadian bagels had much larger holes in them. That doesn’t seem like a huge problem, but one of our most popular items is the bagel sandwich, and when there a giant hole in the bagel and your spreading sauce and cutting it in half, it kind of falls apart,” he said. “So, we worked with them to get the specs right for our bagels.”

The Spoke Café serves eight different varieties with four of those Spoke-only flavours. Jalapeño Cheddar is, by far, the most popular.

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The explosive popularity has required some changes. “We had to purchase specialized equipment just to toast the bagels. They are so fresh and the moisture content is much higher than a frozen bagel,” Leonard said. “We blew through like five or six different toasters over the years to get it right. We had to go to commercial ovens, like pizza ovens, but smaller versions of what you’d see in a pizza shop.

“We’ve invested a lot of money in the technology. Where the regular toasters would take like two minutes to toast, these are getting it done for us in like 30-40 seconds. To be able to do 1,000 bagels a day, you need the right equipment to keep up with this.”

Add in a new coffee vendor and custom-made cream cheeses and it is no wonder Leonard is proud of the Spoke Café’s success.

He credits all involved, from site managers and kitchen managers, to night managers and the more than 90 students who now work at the Spoke Café. And not one of them is hanging around just doing their homework.

“People think it just happened. But it has been years of working hard before finding success,” he said. “We’ve got something special here.”