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A Place All Its Own

Kitchener’s City Café Bakery has created a niche for itself

Written by Karen Hall   
Kitchener’s City Café Bakery has created a niche for itself by doing things a little differently.

12City Café Bakery owner John Bergen is the first to describe his Kitchener, Ontario-based business as quirky. But that trait is what really appeals to his customers. He says when he opened the business in April, 2000 in what was once an old gas station, he wanted it to be authentic with a real feel to it.

“What’s really satisfying is we’ve created a community here,” says Bergen. “Ninety-five per cent of our customers on any given day are regulars. I have people who literally come here seven mornings a week. For them this is like going down the stairs and into their kitchen for breakfast. And then there’s another crowd – a lot of artists and writers who work at home – who come in around 10 a.m.
at least five days a week for their coffee break. We probably do more to establish community than almost any recreation centre in the area because we get to know people. I like that I can walk in anytime and it’s a place where I can belong.”

Bergen, who had never worked in a bakery or a restaurant prior to opening the City Café Bakery, trained as a designer at the Ontario College of Art & Design. He had a small ceramics factory with three or four employees for about 20 years, first in Toronto and then in downtown Kitchener.

“I was designing dinnerware for Mikasa and supplying them with ceramic vases, but then in the spring of 1999 we realized the future wasn’t there anymore,” he says. “So I closed [the factory] down and six weeks later it was all done. And at that point I had no idea what to do with my life.”

Direction came from Rudy Dorner, Bergen’s advisor for the ceramics
business (and one of the City Café’s partners). Bergen’s brother, a dentist in St. Catharines, Ont., has baked Italian sourdough bread every Saturday for the last 20 years. Dorner suggested doing something in that area. And so, the City Café Bakery was born.

“Initially we thought we could just bake the bread for Saturdays and sell them at a market,” Bergen says. “But then I saw an article in a fine cooking magazine on people who made wood-fired pizzas ... with a wood-fired oven. I liked that idea, so I made some inquiries and found you can actually buy one of these ovens quite easily. My buddy said, ‘If you’re going to have a wood-fired oven, you might as well make bagels too,’ and then it evolved from there.”

Today, that wood-fired oven is what much of the City Café Bakery revolves around, Bergen says.

“The first thing we did before we laid out anything was say, ‘the door has to be here and the fire has to be there,’ so that when you walk in the first thing we want you looking at is the fire,” he says. “That sets the mood.”

The wood-fired oven is used to cook bagels (at 600 degrees) and pizza (at a little over 800 degrees). Everything else, including bread, croissants, and tarts, is cooked in electric ovens in the back of the bakery.

When Bergen and his partners first started discussing the concept of the City Café Bakery, Bergen was more interested in how things would be done at the business, as opposed to exactly what would be made. For that reason, things are run a little differently at the bakery. Case in point: City Café doesn’t have Interac or accept credit cards. Neither will you see a cash register in the bakery. Instead, customers add up how much they owe themselves and drop their money into a fare box from an old bus.

“I liked the idea of simplifying things and ... the honour system made a whole lot of sense,” Bergen says. “What irritated me about going into Tim Hortons, for example, was waiting in line for something as simple as getting a donut and a coffee. So the thought was, someone can pour his own coffee, grab his own bagel, cut it himself, throw the money in, and walk out. We don’t touch 60 per cent of the transaction.”

Because it is up to the customers to total their purchases, Bergen has simplified the cost structure.

“Everything is rounded off to the nearest quarter with taxes included where applicable,” he says. “So every desert is $1.50 (tarts, brownies, and date squares), every pizza lunch is $5, every beverage is $1.25, every loaf of bread is $2.75 (Italian sourdough, multi-grain, and raisin bread on weekends), croissants are $1 each, and bagels are three for $2 (plain, sesame, and multi-grain).”

The bakery conducts audits every six months and Bergen says only once did things come up short.

“Our theory is that two per cent of our sales are being ripped off. ‘Ripped off’ in the sense that there are people who forget to pay or they make a mistake in paying, and then there are people who deliberately don’t pay. And every so often we have to kick somebody out that we know hasn’t been paying,” he says. “But at the same time we figure we’re being overpaid by three per cent. Some people come in and want a $2.75 loaf of bread, but they see we’re busy so they throw $3 in and walk out. Or, although we discourage tips, some people still give them to us. But because the staff is paid well (the average wage is $15.50 an hour), the tips go into the general pot.”

The staff will make change if a customer needs it, but Bergen says they will ask the customer how much they want back because they don’t want to have to do the math.

Nor does staff answer the phone. There is a cell phone that suppliers can call, but the main phone does not get answered.
“When somebody phones, the (voice mail) message says the mailbox is full,” Bergen says. “We don’t answer it because the staff is here to produce and it disrupts us.”

Bergen says his experience in design has translated well into the world of running a bakery.

“One of the things I learned in designing is if you want to be successful, you design for yourself,” he says. “You don’t try to understand what’s happening out there. So we designed this bakery saying, ‘We don’t want to be serviced, we want to take control, and we don’t want to be held up.’”

It’s a design that appears to work well. Per week, the City Café Bakery sells approximately 3,000 bagels, 1,200 to 1,300 croissants, 1,000 desserts, as well as numerous loaves of bread, pizzas, and sandwiches.

Bergen says he and his partners are currently looking to open three or four more locations in the area. But because the concept of how they’re running the bakery works well, that won’t change.

“We don’t want to mess with anything,” he says. “The model is profitable and we want to continue doing what we are really good at.”

City Café Bakery is located at 175 West Ave., in Kitchener, Ontario.