Long before Mile End Bagels became a Fitzroy institution, and long before they started churning out more than 3,000 artisan bagels every week, two stonemasons flew all the way from Canada to build the very first wood-fired bagel oven in Australia, brick by brick.
The project cost more than $100,000 and took two weeks to construct what is the only oven of its kind in this country. But it has been well worth the investment for Benjamin Vaughan and Michael Fee, even if they wouldn’t have gone through with it if they knew what they do know.
That was in 2016. And four years later, Mile End has built a cult following in Melbourne’s inner north. They have never done any marketing nor have they knelt at the altar of influencers in the Instagram age.
And they seldom do interviews. But now they are preparing to open a second store to appease your bagel cravings.
A different kind of bagel
Since they first opened their doors inside a building that once housed an import-export business in the late 1980s and early 1990s – the Chan & Chan Trading branded facade is still visible – but was dormant for more than a decade before they arrived, Mile End has emerged as the one of the best bagel destinations in this part of the world. Vaughan and Fee create delicious pieces of round bread, but not as we grew up knowing them – or not knowing them for that matter. They are Montreal-style bagels, which are boiled in honey before being baked inside that earthquake-proof oven from 5am every morning.
Today, they sell out almost every day of the week, often before 1pm, much to the disappointment of devout bagel worshippers around town, who are accustomed to being let down by an Instagram story informing them they are all gone, once again.
“It is slowly growing, more and more people are discovering us, which is nice. We’ve never done any hardcore marketing; we don’t pay for influencers or reach out to anyone; that’s just not our style,” Vaughan told Man of Style.
“For me, it’s a long-term career, it’s not a thing to make some cash and dash. If it takes ten years for us to become a household name, it takes ten years. We’re confident in what we’re doing and we’re really happy with the slow organic approach – word of mouth is still the best form of marketing!”
Vaughan encountered Montreal style bagels on his first trip to New York at the end of 2009. He remembers how they tasted, how they felt, and how they made him feel.
When he returned from America, he continued his business degree but couldn’t stop suppressing the memory at any stage over the next five years.
A passion for bagels
During that period, he launched his first business Carte Crêpes at Melbourne University, but
his thoughts kept coming back to bagels. Fee was the first person Vaughan hired for his crepes business.
Then, Fee became his manager, and by then, his friend. When Vaughan’s mind kept returning to the bagels he devoured in New York, he turned to Fee. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I continued to get more interested in bagels when I was running my little crepe shop and I couldn’t really stop thinking about bagels. I’d had a great experience with crepes, but I’m not going to lie, crepes weren’t my passion. I was studying business and it really just opened up in my mind. I thought bagels had a lot of potential,” says Vaughan.
“There is a lot more to bagels than just a round piece of bread. We realised that there was a whole new way to baking bagels that we didn’t know about it and most people didn’t know about it either. People have been doing this for 60 odd years in Montreal, Canada. We looked into it and then went over to taste it and learn more. For us, it was about the whole bagel experience; it’s not a profit-making enterprise.”
Vaughan and Fee spent weeks roaming through the Mile End neighbourhood – hence the name of their bagel business – in Montreal learning from those who had been in the business for generations.
They even spent a week working at New York’s Blackseed Bagels, where James Beard-nominated head baker Dianne Daoheung’s famous recipe is the benchmark in this area of baking.
“Our name pays homage to the home of the woodfire bagel in Montreal. It was uncanny how much that area [Mile End] felt like Fitzroy. It was kind of like Williamsburg in New York, but obviously that’s on crack – there is nothing really like that. Mile End really felt like walking through Fitzroy, and now more like Collingwood. It was the perfect spot to put the bakery,” says Vaughan.
Mile End Bagels 2.0
At a time when most restaurants are hanging by a thread, and some have already been forced to close permanently due to the financial consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, Mile End will expand when the time is right in the not too distant future. Vaughan and Fee were weeks away from commencing construction on an undisclosed location in the CBD before everything came to a standstill midway through March.
“Top secret, but we did sign a lease at the end of last year in the city for a flagship city store, which we were pretty excited about,” says Vaughan.
“We’ve been looking for two years. We were two weeks from starting the fit-out before all the restrictions came in. All those plans have been paused; we’ll get back there once this all lifts.”
A second location – especially one in the city – will ensure one of Melbourne’s best kept local secrets spreads swiftly. And that will mean bringing back out the stonemasons from Montreal to build another earthquake proof wood-fired bagel oven. At least this time, Vaughan and Fee know what they are getting into.