How IJ Helped Blaze a Trail with the Bagel King of Seattle

The experience of IJ’s client Dennis Ballen and his bagel shop, Blazing Bagels, shows what can happen when an entrepreneur provides the public with something they want. What began as a small shop in a difficult-to-find location—with only 10 employees and selling 500–600 bagels per day—is now a successful and growing Puget Sound business, with 110 employees and three locations selling around 36,000 bagels per day. In 2013, the Puget Sound Business Journal recognized Blazing Bagels as one of the fastest growing businesses east of Seattle. To reach this success, however, Dennis has had to fight back against a heavy-handed government set on squelching his speech.

Dennis began Blazing Bagels after he was laid off from his job selling office supplies. In 2000, he started selling bagels from a cart to local businesses at breakfast and lunch time. His business was a hit. He learned how to make his own bagels and opened his first shop in Redmond, Washington, in 2002. The bagels were excellent, but Dennis needed to attract customers to his shop, which was off a main road in the city. He hired people to stand on the corner and direct people to the store with a sign. That brought Dennis to the attention of the city of Redmond, which tried to shut down his use of portable signs, even though the city permitted identical signs for politicians and real estate agents. The city claimed Dennis’ signs were dangerous and unattractive, but nonetheless permitted similar signs advertising different things.

Dennis teamed up with IJ to sue Redmond in federal court in 2003. We won at the trial court and, after the city appealed, we won at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2006, the appeals court held that the city’s sign code was an unconstitutional content-based regulation of speech. The decision marked an important step in free speech jurisprudence, with the U.S. Supreme Court adopting similar reasoning in 2015.

In his journey to becoming a bagel magnate, Dennis has provided many things: jobs to his employees, financial security to himself and his family, and terrific bagels to hungry customers in the Seattle area. But he has also provided some things not many small-business owners get to offer—he has made our country a little more free and helped protect the First Amendment from unreasonable governmental regulations.

Now entering its 17th year, Blazing Bagels looks to continue to serve delicious bagels (with a bit of liberty baked in) for years to come. And Dennis continues to be an inspiration at IJ, demonstrating how the power of one entrepreneur can change everything.

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