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February 19, 2018 EXECUTIVE PROFILE

Fancy Bagels carves niche with unique manufacturing technique

HBJ Photo | John Stearns Dominick Gualtieri (left) and Sal Belcaro show some of their popular everything bagels in their Fancy Bagels store in Farmington. The store, which opened 30 years ago, is one of two the business partners own, the other being in Southington. The everything bagels are among about 27 varieties they produce.

Bagel makers Sal Belcaro and Dominick Gualtieri face competition everywhere they look, but their two Fancy Bagels stores in Farmington and Southington have stood the test of time in the intensely challenging food industry.

“We're like the Rocky of bagels, two little Italians just keep taking the punches,” but keep fighting, said Gualtieri.

The Farmington store, the first Fancy Bagels, opened 30 years ago in 1988. Southington opened in 1990.

Belcaro, 43, and Gualtieri, 40, haven't owned the stores all that time — Belcaro's uncle and the uncle's father-in-law opened Farmington and Belcaro's parents helped them open Southington — but they've spent much of their lives in the stores, maintained a unique manufacturing style started by the founders and say they've persevered with product quality and consistency, adaptation, friendliness, unselfishness and hard work.

Their bagel-making includes a twist. While bagels are typically boiled or steamed before they're baked, Belcaro and Gualtieri do a version of both: use hot water (but not quite boil the bagels), then steam and bake them. They guard specifics of the manufacturing technique the founders invented when they lived in Long Island, later deciding to start a bagel business in Connecticut's less congested bagel market.

“We never changed it,” Belcaro said of the “special technique.”

They produce about 27 bagel varieties. Belcaro makes the dough following longtime family recipes for most bagels. Others are the partners' more recent creations.

“He's the mixer,” all by hand, Gualtieri said, pointing to Belcaro. “This is the mad scientist right here.”

Belcaro mixes enough dough for about 100,000 bagels monthly, or 1.2 million annually.

The three most popular flavors: plain, everything and golden, a plain bagel with a cornmeal topping. They also make seasonal varieties, and breakfast and lunch bagel sandwiches with myriad ingredients, plus their own cream cheese.

“We make everything,” Gualtieri said, noting stores will adapt to customers' requests.

Adaptation also includes accommodating requests like 100 sandwiches 15 minutes before opening, he said, adding, “You're not going to get that anywhere else.”

They've also been careful with pricing, even as supplies like flour, bacon or eggs sometimes spike. Instead of hiking prices, they might try special offers.

“Whether you're making 5 cents or you're making 25 cents, it's better than zero,” Gualtieri said. “We do what we need to do to keep it going.”

They also build goodwill through bagel donations to events and organizations. And if a customer's a dollar short, he won't be turned away. Many customers become friends.

The social media age also means the occasional complaint gets amplified, even with ratings of 4.5 and 4.8 stars out of 5 on Yelp and Facebook, respectively. Adjusting to social media and competition are the owners' chief challenges.

Gualtieri welcomes reviews and if there's a problem, “tell me so I can fix it; we can fix just about anything.”

Their part- and full-time staff are vital, too, numbering about 25, and who get to know customers. The partners supervise without an iron fist.

“We try to make it like a friendly environment for everybody,” Belcaro said. “Who wants to go to work and not like their job?”

Belcaro and Gualtieri support each other through the demands of small-business ownership and 70-hour weeks. They cherish family time, Gualtieri with his wife and three children, ages 9, 11 and 12, and Belcaro with his daughter, 11.

While busy with two stores, they're open to more by franchising with the right person and location.

Belcaro's uncle and the father-in-law franchised the Farmington store within months of opening Southington, but that ended in a dispute that landed the store back in the family's hands in about 2000, Belcaro said. They also franchised three stores in Cromwell, Bloomfield and West Hartford that eventually converted to other businesses before returning to Long Island in the mid-1990s and selling the business to Belcaro's parents.

Belcaro immigrated from Italy with his parents in 1989 at 15 when they came to help open Southington. He learned English, attended Bristol Eastern High School and worked in a food mart for about five years. He then joined the family in its Southington shop around 1995 during the day and took college classes at night before committing to the family business for good in about 2000.

Gualtieri began working in the Southington store as a baker in 1996 after graduating from the culinary program at New Britain's E.C. Goodwin Technical High School and eventually bought the store in 2002. He took a 50-percent stake in both stores with Belcaro after Belcaro's parents retired in 2007.

Watching customers enjoy their bagels is the reward for the hard work, Belcaro said.

“Makes you feel good inside,” he said. “Like, all right, we're doing something right here.”

Check out a video clip of Sal Belcaro and Dominick Gualtieri's interview in the left-hand column.


Executive Profile: Dominick Gualtieri and Sal Belcaro

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