An Expat Business in Panama

When not behind the counter of his Panama City bagel shop, Jon Hurst makes the most of his adopted home. The Maine native has lived in Panama City for six years, and with easy access to both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, as well as the country’s magnificent highlands, he’s spoiled for choice.

Any weekend may see him island-hopping, trekking in cloud forests, or playing a round of tennis with friends. “I can go to the beach and swim in warm water all year round, take off to the San Blas islands, and of course I have plenty of hammock time,” says Jon.

Bagels were the key to Jon’s new life. In 2005, working in Panama with a sustainable agriculture organization, Jon found himself faced with relocation back to Maine. “I knew if I wanted to stay, I had to find something to occupy my time and create income. So I began to look for ways to make money.”

One day in the supermarket Jon noticed a packet of frozen bagels and realized that he hadn’t seen the freshly-baked option anywhere in the city. “No one was producing them locally. I thought if people were buying them at the grocery store, then obviously there was a market for them, and that’s how I got the idea to open up a bagel shop.”

Jon went to Texas and apprenticed in a bagel café in Fort Worth. He made an arrangement with the owner to work the front counter for free in exchange for bagel-making tips from the baker. “The baker showed me the proper dough texture to look for when mixing flours, he shared recipes with me and gave me tips that I still use in my shop today. It was fantastic!” says Jon.

After two months baking and learning how to run a bagel shop, Jon felt ready to return to Panama City and scout a location for his own store. “I walked everywhere looking at places. The most important factors were location and price,” says Jon, who chose to open his New York Bagel Cafe in the busy El Cangrejo neighborhood.

Jon chose a location just off Via Argentina. His timing was perfect. “At the time I was looking to open a business, Via Argentina had a lot of vacancies,” Jon says. Today, it’s a street known for a wide range of culinary offerings from around the world.

Jon served his first customer in the fall of 2006 and has since become a fixture in El Cangrejo. His team now makes 360 bagels daily, with double production on Sundays. There are 16 types of bagels, which include the Plain Jane, Blueberry Hill, Funyun Onion, Salt of the Earth, and the cheesy Bedda Cheddah. Customers can get their bagels fixed with house-made smears like sundried tomato, pineapple, strawberry, or apricot cream cheese.

“Once I felt the business was stable, I started working on breads, whole breakfasts, and lunches,” Jon says. Four years after opening, he purchased the space next door to add a new bakery section. Today it offers breads like ciabatta and focaccia along with cookies, brownies, and croissants. For those not in the mood for a bagel, there are favorites like pancakes, French toast, omelets, burgers, and hot dogs.

The crowd is a mix of local students from the nearby University of Panama, retirees, expats, families, and young backpackers passing through.

Jon opened his business on a micro-investment visa, which requires a $50,000 minimum investment and at least three Panamanian employees whose social security costs he had to cover. These days Jon’s company has grown and business is good. Jon now employs 12 full-time workers.

“I decided to give myself until age 40 to see if I could make the business work,” he says. “If it failed, I knew I could go back to the States and take up a job. But it’s still working and I’m not going anywhere.”

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