Jim Kenyon: Hanover teen’s bagel-making business is spreading good schmear

Valley News Columnist
Published: 3/13/2022 8:31:53 AM
Modified: 3/13/2022 8:31:11 AM

When the first wave of the pandemic closed schools two years ago, Leo Barnes was looking for something to do with “all his free time.”

Barnes, a Hanover High School sophomore that spring, headed to his family’s kitchen. His mission: Concoct a better bagel.

He started from scratch. Researching recipes online, Barnes quickly learned a lot goes into the making of bagels before they’re ready for the toaster. The ingredients alone presented challenges.

What exactly is poolish, anyway?

“I had no idea,” Barnes acknowledged. (Poolish, a fermentation starter, is the “trick to crispy, chewy” homemade bagels, according to Food & Wine magazine.)

Barnes produced his first batch on Mother’s Day 2020. “They weren’t great,” he recalled.

“They were a bit inconsistent in shape,” his mother, Ilana Cass, a physician, told me with a laugh. But considering that her son’s only previous kitchen experience was “heating up pizza,” she said, “to me, it was the best present.”

Cass’ family moved from Los Angeles to the Upper Valley in 2019 when she was named head of Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s obstetrics and gynecology department. The youngest of Cass and Bear Barnes’ three children was still developing a network of new friends in Hanover when the coronavirus hit.

The kitchen became a laboratory. Barnes tweaked his recipe, going from barley malt syrup to barley malt powder. He increased the amount of salt. “I also probably didn’t have the right kind of flour,” he said.

But looking back on 2020, he still “didn’t really know how to make good bagels.”

Figuring he had nothing to lose, Barnes reached out to Upper Valley bakers who make bagels for a living. He was pleasantly surprised that they were all willing to talk about their craft and offer tips.

Barnes’ interest in bagel-making grew into an obsession. On Sundays, he was in the kitchen a 6 a.m., baking fresh bagels to deliver to family friends in Hanover and Lyme. Young doctors who worked in his mother’s department at DHMC put in orders. It wasn’t a big moneymaker, but it gave him an idea.

“There’s a tipping point when your family doesn’t want as many bagels,” he said. “I wanted to keep experimenting, but I didn’t want any to go to waste.”

He dropped off bagels at the Upper Valley Haven, the homeless shelter in Hartford. They seemed to be a hit.

After sampling Barnes’ creations, I see why. His plain bagels are crusty on the outside, but soft on the inside.

Last year, as a junior at Hanover High, Barnes signed up for social studies teacher Tim Berube’s class in entrepreneurship.

It was a game-changer. Barnes branched out into selling make-it-yourself bagel kits. He put all the ingredients — from flour and semolina to malt and yeast — in a small black box, along with step-by-step instructions. He even threw in a plastic measuring spoon.

The kits were a way to promote bagel-making as a fun activity for parents and children. Couples, too.

But Barnes recognized that persuading people to spend $25 for a baking kit that makes a dozen bagels is a “big ask.” Particularly when from start to finish, making homemade bagels takes 24 hours, including waiting eight hours for the poolish to ferment.

But what if it was about more than just creating a breakfast food or snack?

Barnes began marketing his business as Charity Bagels — “donation made delicious.” After baking the bagels, customers could keep six for themselves and give away the rest. (To round out the gift, people could even toss in a container of cream cheese.) Barnes suggests dropping off the extras — reusing the kit’s black boxes as a carrier — at police stations and senior centers, among other places.

“It’s the experience of making bagels and the opportunity to help in the community at the same time,” he said.

To encourage the small acts of kindness, Barnes offers customers a 50% discount on their second kit for sharing their giveaway story on his website. And it’s working. One woman dropped off fresh bagels at a fire station. Another woman gave bagels to highway workers who were filling potholes on a town street.

At the end of Berube’s class, Barnes entered the competition that Dartmouth’s Magnuson Center for Entrepreneurship holds for Hanover High students.

Barnes earned the top prize of $1,000, which is intended as seed money. Or, in Barnes’ case, dough for dough. He buys flour in bulk at King Arthur in Norwich.

“He had a well thought-out pitch and had started to bring some form to his idea,” said Jamie Coughlin, the center’s director and a competition judge.

Coughlin was impressed that Barnes already had a website (charitybagels.com), which links to a 15-minute video where he walks customers through his do-it-yourself kit.

With the finished basement of his family’s Hanover home serving as an assembly line, Barnes hired a few school friends to help pack boxes and fill orders. He’s sold about 300 kits.

This year, he’s signed up for a booth at the Norwich Farmers’ Market on Saturdays. Does that mean he’ll keep the business running after heading off to college in the fall?

“Good question,” he said.

With Coughlin’s encouragement, he’s thinking bigger. He’s exploring marketing to organizations and companies that could buy dozens of kits for charitable fundraisers.

Early returns look promising. At Hanover High, kit sales raised about $1,200 to help offset the cost of this spring’s prom for lower-income students.

Charity Bagels is an “innovative approach to social entrepreneurship,” Coughlin told me. “Whether it’s the next Facebook, really doesn’t matter. Leo has done some good already.”

In that respect, I’d say he’s already far ahead of Facebook.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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