Women Who Launch: Mama Bagel


In her mid 20s, Jennifer Harrison was a successful software developer from Boston, Massachusetts. And she was a millionaire. On paper. Unfortunately when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, the value of Jennifer’s US$1m investment portfolio took a devastating nosedive. Almost overnight, her portfolio collapsed to merely US$3,000.

One might expect this sort of cataclysmic situation to have many people suffering from traumatic distress, severe depression and perhaps, even entertaining suicidal thoughts.  Not Jennifer. Amidst the looming financial tsunami, Jennifer was a busy single gal in the dating scene. And there, she found love. Within months, she and her now-husband moved to Portugal, leaving the grievous aftermath of the internet bubble burst behind.

Being away from home for more than ten years, Jennifer never once looked back. However, she did miss bagels. The number of times friends and family would visit her and show up with a stash of fresh New York bagels were few and far between. So, it was out of sheer desperation and an insatiable craving that she began learning to bake her own.

In 2011, Jennifer and her family (husband and, now, two daughters) moved to Singapore. Once again, looking for a good old bagel in Singapore was a dismal experience. What she found were bagels that were too dry, too hard and crumbly – everything that a good traditional New York bagel is not meant to be. Rather, it is suppose to be dense, chewy, slightly crusty and lightly toasted. Instead of living with constant bagel frustration, she saw that bagels were sold in some cafes in Singapore, and decided it was time she made her own bagels and sell them too. The difference was – she knew she could make better bagels.

One month ago, Mama Bagel officially started as a business. And what initially started out as an order of 20 bagels per week, increased to 40 bagels the next week, and 80 bagels the following week. And the orders just keep on coming.

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I am reaching maximum capacity on my own now. It is about time I am going to have to start getting machines and invest in heavy-duty equipment, or get extra help’ says Jennifer.

Last Wednesday, I met Jennifer at Sarnies, a local sandwich joint at Telok Ayer, where she bakes out of their kitchen. We chatted as I watched her embark on what looked to me like a mad bagel baking marathon. For three hours, I witnessed a non-stop stream of customers placing their orders and waiting for their bagels to come fresh out of the oven. Never once did Jennifer crack under pressure. In fact, we even had time for a couple of breaks and some laughs. What a night.

Here is my interview with the 41 year old gregarious bagel baker, who holds a a Bachelors degree in creative writing and English literature.

How did you come up with the name Mama Bagel?
I posted on Facebook asking my friends and family for suggestions. The top suggested names were Bagel Bitch, Bubby’s Bagels, Bags of Bagels and Mama Bagel. Most people liked Bagel Bitch but I didn’t think that would go over very well. So, I picked Mama Bagel.

What challenges did you face in coming up with the perfect bagel recipe?
Singapore’s climate is my biggest challenge. The amount of water in the air changes the ratio of flour to water. This changes the recipe a little every time I bake.

In Asia, bagels are not very popular. What’s your opinion: Do Asians like bagels? And why?
Yes! I reckon it is because many Asians have traveled overseas, and tried bagels. Or maybe they have seen them referenced to on American movies and television. In my personal encounters, local Singaporeans seem just as excited to have a good bagel, as the westerners are.

How did you kickstart your business?
I teamed up with the wonderful people at Sarnies cafe. Ben Lee, one of the owners, offered me the use of his kitchen, as well as, to sell my bagels onsite. It is a great marriage because cafe patrons can come for, say, a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel sandwich on a weekday morning to go with their freshly brewed coffee, or an ice-cold Little Creatures Australian beer on a weekend brunch.

Tell us a little about your bagels.
First, all the ingredients are from Singapore. I have managed to source locally, and even found a local flour mill. Second, my bagels are 100% natural. No chemicals, no preservatives, no fat and no eggs used. So, it is vegan and vegetarian. Third, I try to incorporate as many organic ingredients as I can. For example, I use only organic chia seeds, sesame seeds and onions in my baking.

What are your future plans for Mama Bagels?
It is hard to say at this point but I can see there is a huge opportunity for growth and expansion. Someday, I would like to sell bagels on a mass scale, perhaps open one or more bakeries, and continue to supply to restaurants and cafes.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of setting up their own food business in Singapore?
Food is a tricky business in any country. You have to find a worthwhile product, and believe in its potential 100% because to start, it is a lot of hard work with little or no payoff. However, if you find your niche market, the sky is the limit! Especially in a foodie country like Singapore.

Do you have a role model?
My sister. She started a jewelry business in America a few years ago and has succeeded beyond her wildest dreams! I hope someday, that too, will be my story.

Do you practice eco-conscious living? If so, in what way?
I reuse everything and very little goes to waste. I used to compost, but since moving to Singapore, I stopped. But, I am thinking of getting a worm farm to eat my leftovers!

If you could play your part in saving the planet in just ONE way – in your everyday life, what would it be?
Public transportation.

Mama Bagel’s bagels are sold at the following outlets:
Sarnies, 136 Telok Ayer Street. Click here to find them.
Group Therapy Cafe, 49 Duxton Road.
The Pantry Farmers’ Market,  Loewen Gardens. Click here for the market schedule.

Thanks Jen ♥

To find out more about Jennifer and Mama Bagel, click here.

For a complete listing of:

  • Women Who Launch interviews, click here.
  • Inspiring Women interviews, click here.
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