Bye-Bye, Bagels: Finicky Fans Flip for Flagels

By Max Gross

Published December 19, 2003, issue of December 19, 2003.
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A 65-year-old regular at Montague Street Bagels — a Brooklyn Heights temple to the traditional treat — stepped up to the counter one chilly December morning.

“Three flagels,” said the customer.

The long line of patrons behind him suddenly perked up. “What’s a flagel?” erupted a chorus of eager Brooklyn Heights residents.

Not as doughy as the bagel. Not as malleable as the pita. Crispy on the outside. Chewy on the inside. The word “flagel” derives from the English for “flat” and the, um, Yiddish for “bagel.”

The crowd at the bagel shop was intrigued. As soon as the sexagenarian customer had received his flagels and taken them up to the cash register, the next few customers decided to give the flagel a try.

At Montague Street Bagels you can have a sesame flagel with cream cheese. Or a poppy flagel with butter. Or a chicken salad sandwich on a plain flagel. Or flattened versions of any of the millions of variations of the bagel that have become popular over the last few years. Ever since the folks at Montague Street Bagels came up with the idea of flattening their dough, these flagels have been selling like hotcakes.

The flagel has “been around for a while,” said Joe Aceto, one of the owners of Montague Street Bagels. “I’m from Long Island and it’s been there everywhere.”

Nussbaum & Wu, a bakery on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has been selling flagels for about two years. H&H Midtown Bagels has been selling flagels for even longer.

The few hundred daily flagel consumers at H&H Midtown — where more than 10,000 non-flat bagels are sold every day — have developed a fierce loyalty to the new bread.

“They’re not displacing the bagel, but they’re still something,” said Julie Esposito, the accounts manager at H&H Midtown Bagels, where the flagel is known as the “bagel flat.” “We’re selling a lot to gourmet shops — they use them for sandwiches. You see it made with arugula, prosciutto… ”

Esposito’s own mother had despaired about finding a bagel that she liked; every bagel she found was too big and too doughy for her. She would divide her bagels in three and throw the middle section away. Esposito told the Forward that when she sent a batch of flagels to her mother, “she was happy as a clam. She said, ‘Where have these been all my life?’”

Esposito said that the owner of H&H Midtown Bagels is hooked on flagels. And, Esposito admitted, she is, too. “It’s come to the point where I can’t eat a whole bagel anymore,” Esposito lamented.

Rather than being a nontraditional departure, the flagel might actually mark a return to a more traditional form of the bagel. The bagels of yesteryear were far different than they are today.

“Most bagels in New York have become pretty terrible,” said food writer Matthew Goodman, also known as the Forward’s “Food Maven.”

Goodman traces the decline of the bagel back to when the “bagel machine” was invented and Lenders began producing frozen bagels. “Once they started becoming a mass phenomenon,” Goodman said, small bagels disappeared. The bagels of today “are so big they use about a third the flour of a whole loaf of bread. What you have almost everywhere now are bagels that are too big, too soft, don’t have enough crust.”

One can already see the backlash against the doughy bagel from the carbohydrate-conscious noshers who scoop out the inner-dough of their bagels.

“I used to scoop out the middle, just eat the outsides,” said Warren Bell, owner of Bagels by Bell in Brooklyn — who claims to be a fan of flagels, although his shop has not yet started producing them.

Will the flagel also be the answer to an Atkins-conscious public looking to lower their carbs?

“No, it’s the same dough,” said Aceto. “It’s just flat.”

Though it may not help people watching their waists, as Aceto noted, the flagel has a different advantage over its doughy cousin: “You could spread more on it.”

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