The Philosopher King of Bagel Bean
By Brigid Carey
Customers enjoy mosaic tiles of blue, ivory, and every hue of red while the heat slowly drifts from their tea. Sandwiched between two counters, sitting at a small coffee table, they listen to Bagel Bean's proprietor Roger Mallon weave stories and philosophies together with an Irish brogue: a quick, vigorous Irish accent that retells his life in Ireland and beyond.
Mallon, 34, is an entrepreneur with a dream.
Not the American dream involving success and fame, but rather the delight that comes at the end of the day. He confesses that his happiness comes from seeing his shop, "packed with people, music playing; everybody lively; everybody happy."
Three years ago, when Mallon was in Armagh leaving fliers on cars, he discovered a shop for lease. He asked a policeman about the building, and the next week he had the space. He knew he wanted to serve bagels and after a couple of word games, he stumbled onto Bagel Bean . "It just fit," he muses. In the end, he says, "a lot of the shop happened by chance."
But it is definitely not chance explaining Mallon's success and Bagel Bean's popularity. One characteristic of his business is that Mallon tries to learn all his customers' names. He claims it makes Bagel Bean more personal and comfortable, and surely his customers agree. Without the small gesture of learning names, he "wouldn't be here," he says. "You have to care." And it shows.
It wasn't always this way, though. Three years ago when Bagel Bean first started, he had a hard time finding his footing. He admits that he and the little shop almost closed in the beginning, and it would have been easy to just walk away. But he kept at it, working diligently, and gradually it started changing, getting easier. He credits his success to never doing it cheap, never cutting corners, "keeping his head down," doing it right, and the fact that running a restaurant is not rocket science. At first, the people of Armagh didn't know what a bagel was. He remembers how hesitant and leery they were of the rounded bread because it was so new.
Gradually, though, attitudes changed. Customers perked up. When asked what the best thing on the menu was, Mallon quips, "Me, of course!" One of his regulars laughs as he has been anticipating this response. But with the plethora of delicious melts, bagel sandwiches, and breakfast delights, it's hard to decide what really is the best. Mallon confesses that he's borrowed most of his recipes from magazines "I'm not really a cook," he says. " I just find a recipe, try it out, and see if it works." Pick any of the tempting concoctions from the bright purple and lime menu, and you won't be disappointed.
But the bagel shop wasn't always his calling. Born in county Tyrone, Mallon studied in Armagh at St. Patrick's boarding school for eighteen years, and at the university in Galway. During this time he dabbled in many professions: barman, gardener, guard, mobile cook, even Santa Claus. "I wouldn't do [Santa Claus] again, not even for my own kids," he confesses. The people at the university were embarrassed for him, treating his Santa Claus like a disease. But Mallon remembers a different moment also, recounting the time someone told him he was the best Santa Claus they ever had. "That's the main thing," he concludes. "To be able to walk away, and people remember. That's worth more than money."
After the university, Mallon moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he washed laundry at the Ritz Carlton. After a few months he moved to Minnesota, working at an Irish bar, and then returned to Ireland during Christmas 1995.
Since then he's traveled the world, but there is no place he'd rather live than Ireland. And what captivates him most about this gorgeous emerald isle? "The people. They have a sense of humor like nowhere else." He's been to Norway, where he admits he found the women attractive; America, where he found some "strange places;" and even Egypt, but he's always happier here because of the sharp humor. "They can laugh at themselves," he boasts.
With his love for his homeland, it seems likely Mallon would stay at the Bagel Bean in Armagh. He disagrees, however. "Who knows where I'll be in ten years?" He imagines being a pilot and says, "Maybe next time I visit Ireland I'll fly on Mallon Airlines." He says he can see himself using the shop as a bargaining chip. He wants to "keep moving; find more; find new things," to keep him excited. He confesses that at the end of his life "the experience, more than anything," is what he's after.
For the moment, though, Mallon is focused on the Bagel Bean. He hopes one day he'll have a family similar to the one he's already raised at his restaurant. He raves about his staff like a proud parent, saying it's the best he's ever had and he definitely started with the worst.
Faint music dancing behind his words, Mallon inspires the curiosity of the soul. After three years of hard work, he believes that if he can do this, he can do anything. "Every experience you have, keep it. You'll need it for something... [It will] help down the line," he assures his customers.
His advice to others? "Gamble in life!" He discusses his plans for opening another Bagel Bean across town because he is currently located on the "quietest, shoddiest street" in Armagh. But the character of the street doesn't appear to be keeping people away, and his shop quickly fills after he opens at 7:30 a.m.
Maybe the public comes to lose itself in the smell of smoky bacon, the hot tea fit to soothe any sore throat, or the sunlit tables stark against the canvas of mismatched tiles. In any case, Bagel Bean owes it all to Roger Mallon: a modern day philosopher-king serving up a delicious bagel.
Story by Brigid Carey
Photos by Juanita Dudhnath
Video by Chrissy Doughty
Web Design by Caitlin Robirds