Kettleman Bagel Co. makes the dough

PORTLAND -- Jeffrey Wang hadn't tossed bagel dough into boiling water for a decade when he moved to Portland in 2006.

But the serial entrepreneur, burned out after years in the computer business in California, was looking for a way to get by in his new home.

"I'd tossed my recipes and left the equipment behind," he said. "I thought, 'Will I remember how to do this?' "

Apparently so.

In four years, the Taiwanese immigrant grew Kettleman Bagel Co. from a kosher wholesale business with two employees --he and his wife -- to a five-store chain with 100 employees. The list of Wang's 140 wholesale accounts includes New Seasons Market, Whole Foods, Intel, Nike and most large hospitals. He aims to open four more stores and, come July 1, plans to provide his full-time employees with health benefits.

Wang's experience is one of the success stories of the U.S. Small Business Administration's local office, earning him a visit Friday from the federal agency's deputy administrator. Marie Johns, the SBA's second in command, spoke with Wang and toured the Southeast Portland bagelry where tattooed 20-somethings mix, cut, boil and bake 14,000 bagels daily.

Standing in front of his giant revolving oven, Wang recalled using his $100,000 SBA loan to help secure other investments -- $80,000 of which came from private investments he solicited on Craigslist.

"We bought this place, thisbig place and we didn't even have one customer," said Wang, 57, who recalls having trouble sleeping at night. In part, perhaps, because he spent the first year sleeping in the upstairs office of his bakery and retail store.

Wang, at this point, was used to shaky beginnings. He came to the U.S. in the 1980s, he said, and was looking for a way to make a living. Fast. He opened a deli and then noticed that the line at the bagel shop next door was longer than his. He bought a small shop in Long Island with the deal that the former owner would teach him how to make the bagels.

"But he took the money and left," said Wang, who watched a few other bagel-makers at work and dug in. He opened two more bagel shops in Long Island, spending the next 18 years learning every role of running a business.

After his stint in California, Wang admitted he thought he was out of the food business. But, recognizing the dearth of kosher bagel offerings in Portland, Wang saw an in.

Some customers say Wang's just got the recipe down -- boiling instead of some competitors' practice of steaming or simply baking. Others say he hit a sweet spot, even amid a recession, offering welcomed low prices on goods that can be affordably produced.