Danny Cowan spent 20 years working at the once-popular New York Bagel, franchising two locations in Denver. He perfected the New York–style of boiling bagels in water for 60 seconds before baking, creating a crisp outer layer and soft center. Outside of New York Bagel, this method wasn’t commonly used in Middle America at the time. 

When the chain filed for bankruptcy protection and sold in 2000, the brand changed hands multiple times and left customers missing an authentic bagel chain. Cowan viewed Middle America as an abandoned market, with nothing stopping him from bringing New York–style bagel sandwiches to Oklahoma City. He quit his job as a sales representative and realtor, partnered with his childhood friend Wayne Hansen, and invested in a new concept: Old School Bagel Cafe. Another friend, Kyle Tapp, joined the team a few years later. 

“When [the founders] came back home to Oklahoma, there weren’t any New York–style bagel shops in the region, and the community kept asking for one,” says Joey Conerly, VP of corporate strategy for Old School Bagel. “They decided they would take a stab at their own concept and put a spin on it in terms of culture and atmosphere.” 

After launching in 2007, the bagel chain quickly became known as the “Cheers” of the area, growing a cult-like following through its commitment to guest relationships. The founders created a culture where operators know their customers’ names and bagel orders, delivery drivers are offered free drinks, and tables are pre-bussed. 

It also sets itself apart by capturing both breakfast and lunch dayparts. So much so that Conerly says half of Old School Bagel’s sales come from the afternoon crowd and that the lunch menu surpasses breakfast. 

Morning traffic is driven by traditional breakfast sandwiches and specialized coffees, whereas lunch consumers are drawn by unique offerings including the Old Smokey, Cuban, or Turkey Avocado. Guests can even build their own bagel sandwiches with a choice of meat, cheese, and veggies, served hot or cold. 

“Everyone thinks of bagels and cream cheese, but when we throw pulled pork and Swiss on a bagel, it throws everybody for a loop. This variety of sandwiches hits on different cravings, and our customers can get something different every day,” Conerly adds. “We have people in the drive-thru ordering their breakfast and lunch for the day at the same time.”

Old School Bagel grew conservatively for 17 years, slowly ramping up its delivery, in-app, and catering channels. Last year was the biggest moment for the brand, with corporate growth doubling in unit size from seven to 15, and same-store sales growing 39 percent since 2019. 

With the help of a new loyalty program, which tracks the customer’s journey with Old School Bagel, over 50,000 accounts have been registered since November 2023. The bagel shop has pushed its evolution further by undergoing a full brand refresh, involving improved equipment and streamlined technology platforms. Every store was updated to have the same POS, menu, and price point. 

“We’ve always been ahead of the game. We launched on Uber Eats way before the pandemic, and we invested heavily in our existing stores before starting down a large growth path. We’ve done three remodels, including our original location,” Conerly says. “When we decided to work on opening on a larger scale, we made sure we streamlined our equipment, our technology, and updated our recipes and operations to ensure we had a certain level of consistency first.” 

When guests outside of Oklahoma City began to show interest in the brand, Conerly listened. He applied his decade-long experience in franchising to build a franchise program for Old School Bagel, which launched in late April. Over 15 months, he opened eight stores, optimizing the model in terms of site selection, unit footprint, branding, store design, preferred vendors, and equipment packages. 

He experimented with different scenarios to find the right model: unique spaces, drive-thru, standalone, and in-line. Conerly imagined what it would look like for the chain to move into a larger or smaller market, all with the idea of going through everything a franchisee could think of before the fact.

Conerly is looking for both single and multi-unit franchisees who are passionate about their communities and serving others. “Old School Bagel needs engaged owner-operators. I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in franchising, and I don’t want that for us. We want to be a support structure for people who want to grow the concept and be connected to the operation,” He adds. 

The brand’s first focus is to award franchises within driving distance of Oklahoma City, in states including Texas, Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas. Although there’s been interest from operators coast to coast, Conerly decided early on that he didn’t want to expand Old School Bagels’s footprint at a rapid scale. 

“We’re going to focus on the surrounding states first … and move operators into an area we can easily support without stressing our logistics or distribution. There’s plenty of opportunity centered around Oklahoma City, and we don’t see [expanding further] as a proper strategy right now,” Conerly says. 

Some corporate locations with a long-term positive trajectory will be awarded to franchisees to kickstart the franchise pipeline. In its corporate stores, the concept will work on improving its operations and increasing profitability as it moves into the future.

Fast Casual, Growth, Story