Ken Levy//January 27, 202
Blue Sky Bagels owner Mark Hansen told the ‘hole’ story: later this year, he’ll celebrate 20 years of providing fresh-baked bagels with all the fixings to hungry Treasure Valley folks.
Hansen and partner Scott Lung opened the first Blue Sky Bagels in downtown Boise in 2002. The site, at 407 W. Main St., had been home to other bagel-shop iterations. Hansen bought out Lung in 2005.
“One of the reasons for buying out Scott was to grow,” Hansen said.
Hansen opened his second shop, at 3161 E. Fairview Ave. in Meridian, in 2006. Life happenings created a gap between opening Fairview and his third location, at 12375 W. Chinden Blvd. in Garden City, about seven years ago. An ex-employee ran that store as Sunshine Bagel, and the shop went through a couple of other variations of “people trying to do bagels” before Hansen purchased and converted it. He opened his fourth shop at 5517 W. State St. Near Boise in 2019.
Hansen has weathered recessions, uncertain markets and a plague to keep the doughy holes rolling. Despite recent widespread reports of staffing shortages, he said he’s had minimal issues keeping full staffing. Overall, Blue Sky Bagels employs about 50 people.
“It hasn’t been a nightmare,” he said. “It’s been pretty close to what it usually is, maybe slightly worse. The biggest issue for us has been when somebody’s had a COVID scare and isolated, and been out for five to 10 days.”
The real issues came in the summer of 2020, “when things got too busy too fast, and we got slammed in July. That hurt, and we closed some stores, just to spread the staff around.”
Store closures only amounted to a day or two at a time, and hours were adjusted to reopen them. Since then, salaries bumped up, and prices were increased “to kind of spread it around.”
Hansen said he’s always felt that “if you pay people well, and treat them well, you don’t give them a reason to leave. That’s worked out for us.”
Overcoming today’s challenges
Business has made a big jump over the last year despite COVID-19 and “supply-chain glitches here and there,” Hansen said.
Those glitches included a general shortage of cream cheese. While COVID-19 was blamed for transportation and labor issues, a report from bloomberg.com said a cyberattack against a major producer aggravated the shortage of bagels’ favorite topping.
“We’re just coming out of the cream-cheese glitch,” Hansen said. “You just adjust.”
Blue Sky Bagels had to switch from the base cream cheese product it normally used before the shortage.
“We sweated a couple of days,” Hansen said. “We were within a day or two of stuff not showing up. But it’s been nice; customers appreciate us being here. They’re very understanding and see we’re doing the best we can.”
Besides adapting his cream cheese blends to the temporary shortage, Hansen’s success formula is keeping things simple.
“I don’t know if people really know what their formula is,” he said. “I think you can make up a lot of stuff. For me, it’s as simple as wanting people to leave happier than they show up. If you can do that, you’re doing well. We can make mistakes, but we’re always here to fix them. It’s the equation of people’s time and money versus the service and food they get. If they feel like it’s more than worth their effort, they’ll tend to come back.”
Change comes slowly at Blue Sky Bagels, which also helps with the company’s success.
“Several years back, I had a goofy employee who told me (that), for being so lazy, I was a pretty good boss,” Hansen said. “It takes all my effort not to screw this thing up. You really want to change things, but so often you’re not improving things. You’re just changing things and making it harder. I really try to keep it easy on the employees and the customers so people can get in and out fast, and minimize mistakes.”
“We really don’t change much because we keep growing,” he added. “When we stop growing, I’ll think about making life harder.”
Hansen said he has no interest in franchising. Franchise fees, which can run 5-8%, make it hard for the big guys to compete, he said, and those fees can be better put toward employees and food.
“Not being a franchise really gives us some pricing leverage,” he said.
Blue Sky Bagel’s production facilities are based at the Main Street location. It makes the dough for all the stores, and the product is baked fresh at each site throughout the day. Cream cheese flavors are also mixed downtown. A refrigerated truck delivers the goods to outlying stores.
“We do as much prep as we can to centralize production,” Hansen said.
Blue Sky Bagels offers as many as 15 kinds of bagels, which can be toasted for a wide variety of hot sandwiches with a wide selection of toppings. The cream cheese is offered in about nine flavors, and there are rotating flavors of soup available at each shop.
Hansen recently sold his interests in Good Vibes Kombucha, a specialty tea company based in the Treasure Valley and brewed next door to the Chinden Blue Sky Bagels location. He continues to offer the “cultured tea” products in his shops.
Hansen also said he is considering adding a location in Canyon County in the next year or two.
“I just enjoy being local,” he said. “I like sitting in my dining rooms watching people and being close to my employees.”