Not Bergen. He’s found a winning formula and he’s stayed with it since building his first café 13 years ago.
“We stick to our knitting,” he said in an interview at the newest City Café, which opened June 4 in a newly constructed commercial plaza at the corner of Bridgeport Road and Lancaster Street in Kitchener.
The latest City Café has all the usual features that have made the other outlets so successful: pizzas, open-faced sandwiches, bagels, croissants and other snacks baked in a large, $13,000 wood-fired oven purchased from Earthstone Ovens in California.
Those are just the culinary attractions. Each café has an open-concept design so patrons can see the oven in action, a funky décor featuring tiled walls, hanging signs, pleasing tunes and plenty of newspapers on hand so they can snack and read.
Customers with the right change pay on the honour system using fare boxes reclaimed from old buses. The box in the Bridgeport café is the first to actually come from a Canadian bus, says Bergen. Business partner Rudy Dorner found the old Toronto Transit Commission fare box on Kijiji.
Bergen has a definite flair for marketing and design. The first two cafes in the chain were established in renovated gas stations and the third is in the old Doon Twines rope-making plant at Charles and Ottawa streets.
His voluntary payment system once garnered a mention in the New York Times.
To be successful in the modern era, a food business should have a unique story or “narrative,” he once told me.
The site at Bridgeport and Lancaster is one of the busiest in the region with 12,000 vehicles passing by each day, says Bergen. He’s making use of a gas station site again except this one was torn down some years ago.
Original owner and masonry-company proprietor Eugene George built a gas station on the property years ago because he wanted a place to fill up his vehicles after 11 pm Monday to Saturday and all day on Sundays. They were prohibited at the time by the city. George chose that site because it was just outside city boundaries in the community of Bridgeport.
The gas station closed years ago, but Bergen has long had his eye on the site and approached George about five years ago about using it in some way. Nothing materialized at the time and two years ago George sold it to Pierpoint Developments, owned by Mike and Pamela Beirstock.
After acquiring it, Pierpoint approached Bergen about opening a café in a new project consisting of two buildings housing a commercial-office mix. Bergen signed a 15-year lease for 1,600 square feet.
To finance the new café, Bergen turned to the same recipe used to pay for the other three. Eighteen investors threw in $7,500 each with he and Dorner chipping in the rest to cover the $200,000 startup cost.
The investors get their money back plus a 10 per cent return or more if the café makes money. All the money is committed up front so the project is debt-free, he says.
Bergen expects the café, which employs seven full and part-time people, will reach $800,000 a year in sales within five years. The total sales for all four cafes will hit $2.8 million within a year, he predicts.
Each café has incremental improvements over the others. The Bridgeport facility, for example, is set up better to accept deliveries. Suppliers can enter through a back door and proceed directly to fridges and storage areas without disrupting the bakers out front.
The final stretch to get the café ready was a grueling one for the 58-year-old Bergen. He worked 12 hours a day for 30 days straight.
“If you asked me last week (if I’m planning another), I’d say I’m done,” says the indefatigable and colourful entrepreneur whose gift of the gab matches his work ethic.
But now that he’s feeling a little more rested, he’s got his eye on the untapped territory of Waterloo, he says.