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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

A snapshot of the first outlet team from what became an American chain in Hungary - RESULTS

Updated: Aug 8, 2022

KesterTester81 - This is one for folks who were in Budapest in the 1990s. It shows the team (and owners) outside the very first outlet of what became an American 'chain' across Hungary.

Photo: These people introduced a very US icon, unknown at the time in Hungary, into Budapest in 1993. In fact, their product was so unknown, they had to create an advertising campaign to educate Magyars as to what they had been missing.

Last week I got a surprise invitation from someone I knew only from a brief email conversation, but had never met. Robert (I shan't give his surname, as that might make this Tester too easy) was having a party to celebrate 30 years of opening the first outlet of his Hungarian venture in Budapest. I was doubtful that I'd make the do in the current heatwave, especially with the KATA protests going on, but I managed to roll over to Kosztolányi Dezső tér and find the Tranzit Art Cafe (which isn't so easy, because cafe itself is 50 metres off the square) and let myself into the throng. Well, throng is probably an exaggeration - it's quite an expansive former-bus-station-turned-cafe, so there was quite a bit of room. I suppose there were about 80 folks mingling there – of whom I recognised precisely none. Not to worry, I found Robert, who was gracious in the extreme, and I began to learn the extraordinary story of this venture, of which I had a very warped understanding dating from the time they were plying their trade. (I suppose I should have read the local papers that I sometimes wrote for, because their tale appeared in Budapest Week, the Budapest Sun and the BBJ over time.) So, the question for KT81 is: what is the name of this outlet? And the name of the chain still exists – at least there is one outlet in Budapest now under the same name – but it looks as if it is not a legal descendant of the original company, which was sold to a Hungarian in 1999. The new owner turned the stores into something else entirely. I'll tell some of this story when we get the answer to the Tester done and dusted. I've had to electronically obliterate the name on the sign (of course). And I'll give another clue or two next week as I think even our regular super sleuths may struggle over this one – but there remains at least one decent clue in this piccie. OK, softee that I am: I'll give an extra clue – of sorts - now: the store pictured is not in a fashionable part of Budapest, certainly not in 1993 (although it is on the main körút traversed every minute or so in daytime by the 4 and 6 trams). In fact, the area was so down at heel when first opened that Robert told me that people would ask him: “Couldn’t your parent company, the big American xxx yyy zzz Corporation, afford to get you a better location?” But you have to be careful with this “clue”, or you might end up on the road I went down :)

Answers, please, via an email or the website messaging system (not in the comments section, 'cos everyone will then see that). Of course, if you were at the party, and Robert sends you a link to this, I kind of think that's not really in the spirit of KesterTesters to then try to win, so you can't really expect to be eligible to go into the EU-approved Black Woolly hat for the ultimate prize of global celebrity fame and the right to buy me two beers – but you might enjoy the pic and the story in any case :)

Now, I have to ask forgiveness for not being such a good steward of my own website this week (it has been hot, you know, and I've been busy). I'll aim to give some more clues to KesterTester80 tomorrow (that's the sign photo) and also draw the winners for KT79 (Man and Socialist-Realist Man). So I hope you can stand the tension until then :) and have a great weekend!

UPDATE: Trying to find additional clues for this is, as usual, difficult for fear of giving it all away too easily.

Perhaps I should say that there were three co-founders, two of whom had bachelor's degrees from Harvard. Robert actually had a place to do an MBA at Harvard in 1992, and he had this deferred to establish this start up in 1992-3. (He left in 1995 to successfully complete his MBA in 1997.)

OK, because I'm such a generous soul, here's another clue.

Photo: A group pic of former employees and managers of the chain, taken at the party at the Tranzit Art Cafe a fortnight ago. Perhaps some readers recognise someone in the crowd? I've brushed out the background because the name appeared behind the group. (C'mmon, I'm not THAT much of a softee.)

And yet another clue: Robert says that his team were the first to introduce cream cheese into Hungary.

UPDATE - Competitors and the WINNER!

This Tester produced a lot more entries than I originally imagined it would, kicking off soon after publication from Bill at the Flour Mill – who answered more with another question than with an answer. “Kester, .... I just read your latest Tester. It struck a chord because I was wondering what had happened to that little chain of tiny sandwich shops that flourished and have now disappeared. As one of them was on the Margit Korut, which was a bit dismal, although hardly that bad, traversed by said tram, I'm curious if that might by chance be it. Bill” I honestly don't know, Bill. If you could send a photo, I could put it up, we could even do a GuesterTester. Maybe someone will write in anyway. David Thompson then swooped. “Hi Kester, From memory: Dairy Queen. David.” Not to be outdone, Les Szabo had a crack: “My guess is Wendy's burger chain, which had a store at the Octagon - closed about mid nineties keep cool, doing beer festival again this year, lez” Wendy's then had a little run of popularity, well, the choice of Zsolt Maroti, at least: "Szia Kester Is it Wendy’s? I vaguely remember there was one in Oktogon,” I do believe there was one indeed, Zsolt. Opposite Kentucky Fried Chicken, I believe. Honest, I'd forgotten that – and this next one. “The answer is Dunkin' Donuts,” Tom Chilton stated, categorically, before adding: “I am extremely glad that Hungarians resisted the "educational" campaign to persuade them to eat unhealthy American junk food and stick with their own vastly superior baked goods, such as the sublime túrós táska.” Oh. This is a bit iconoclastic, isn't it Tom? I have American readers too, you know!

But once he gets going, he's difficult to stop. “For your information, not only were Hungarians entirely familiar with what our American friends call "donuts", they have been eating them (as fánk) since at least 1500. Fánks are not only delicious but play an important role in Hungarian traditions, being associated with Carnival (like pancakes in the UK). They were also used as love tokens given by village maids to favoured suitors.” OK Tom. That's interesting to be sure, and vital stuff for second year Hungarian Sociology undergrads, I'd imagine. Meanwhile, Hubert “Poirot” Warsmann was preparing this week's exocet. “KT 81 - That's got to be Robert Brooker and the team at New York Bagel. They had to spend a lot of time and money explaining to the locals that bagels and beigli were chalk and cheese. “Unfortunately, they got caught in the 1995 crisis (remember 35% inflation?) and did not last long."

I think they survived longe than that, Hubert (more to come) - Hubert continued: “If I remember correctly, a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel (my favourite) was about 150 ft, a princely sum in those days, when fillers were still around. They attracted a lot of media interest at the time and I think his alma mater, HBS [Harvard Business School], taught a case study on the venture for a few years.” Somewhat less wordy, but no less accurate (for this Tester) was Des McGrath: “KT81, New York Bagel, on the unfashionable Ferenc körút. Richard Lock had an even more limited vocabulary: “New York Bagel”. David McCall wrote in from rainy Oregon (I've never been there, David – it's just what I've read): “If memory serves, they called themselves New York Bagel. It was a great way to provide us with a taste of home, even if it was difficult to make local patrons embrace. Brings back memories! David” Theodore Boone move in with the plural: “New York Bagels” said he (perhaps he usually ate a brace) “Easiest one yet!” boasted Steven Nelson. (It might be for you, Steve, but I wouldn't have got it if I didn't know, if you see what I mean.) “New York Bagel. I know they had a lot of locations but I only remember their one at the place that became Centrál Kávéház, which was paired with the noisy arcade Wizards.” Gosh, I'd forgotten that, if I ever knew it, but I'm sure you will have stirred some memories, Steven. Finally, hardcore sleuther John Cantwell joined the party. “Hi Kester, “That would be New York Bagel. Originally opened on Ferenc körút, later moved to Bajcsy-Zsilinszky near the Basilica. “Though I don’t think I ever knew them, I remember hearing that the founders had met doing an MBA course and wanted to put their new knowledge to the test in the newly opened market here.

[A slight correction here, so as to be more accurate – they met on a first degree course – and Robert left to take up an MBA, which he'd deferred to convert eastern Europe to bagel-eaters.] “As it was originally a central eastern European food, it was rather a re-introduction to the region. It is also probably an etymological cognate of the Hungarian beigli. John” Well, that's all very informative and 'good old days' reminiscent.

I was waiting for Csilla Davalovszky to make her final bid, but as she wrote earlier: “I was investigating it and was surprised to learn that Dunkin Donuts and Wendy’s tried to enter the Hungarian market back in the 90s. But I can’t say at the moment which outlet is in the picture.” Well, Csilla – as it's neither (in this instance), I think it's ok if I do the draw now – the EU approved, Black Woolly hat is feeling a bit unloved and needs some exercise, you see. So, after much swirling of numbers with the hand, and ….... the blessed name destined for global celebrity status is …. Theordore Boone! Theodore, I hope you realise that life will never be the same again. Apart from the chance to buy me two beers, after this news gets out you are likely to be surrounded by adoring fans wanting selfies and deluged with tweets and app messages asking for advice on how to win KesterTesters – but I expect you're man enough to take it. KT82 (the Theatre Magnificent) and KT83 (A Tasty Bite) are still open, with some updated clues, so keep on sleuthing and have a good week.

ps I'll post something of the story of New York Bagel in the future, as it really is an great tale of entrepreneurship!

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