Is a Day-Old Bagel Really the Best San Francisco Can Do?
Photos courtesy of Meesha Halm
You can take the New Yorker out of New York, but evidently, you can’t take the kvetching out of a New Yorker. Big Apple transplants have long lamented that you can’t get a good bagel in the Bay Area (or a decent slice of pizza for that matter). While San Franciscans have come to embrace their Californicated version of pizza, not so with bagels. Despite a spate of artisan bagel shops that have recently opened in the Bay Area (including Authentic Bagel and the now-vanished Schmendrick’s), none seem to pass muster with true bagel snobs. Which explains why several hundred carb-craving hipsters waited nearly two hours in the rain outside of a bar in San Francisco’s Mission District last month, in the hopes of sinking their teeth into day-old bagels flown in from Manhattan. And why, next weekend, on March 15th, when the bagel-focused pop-up Eastside Bagels is slated to return locals are bracing for more bread lines.
If it seems like a big marketing ploy, well it was. Sort of. The bagel-focused pop-up, dubbed Eastside Bagels, is the brainchild of Sonya Haines, an online marketing consultant for tech start-ups who teamed up with Wes Rowe, a local chef who runs Wes Burgers pop-up. Haines isn’t a New Yorker, but spent a few years living there and, like many others, missed its bagels when she returned to San Francisco. Recognizing an untapped business opportunity, she bought the domain name nycbagels.com and hatched the idea of launching a subscription-based bagel box, banking on the assumption that San Franciscans would deem any New York bagel (even a day-old one) better than anything they could get locally.
The duo decided to test-drive their idea with Eastside Bagels, a New York deli-inspired pop-up brunch. The word spread quickly, helped along by social media and the promise of Russ & Daughters bagels. “Our original plan was to order 80 bagels,” Rowe told the Forward, “but as we watched the reaction on our Facebook page, we increased it to 120.” Rowe crafted a menu that showcased the overnighted bagels, revived on a flat top and slathered with a choice of flavored cream cheeses (plain, charred scallions-garlic, jalapeno, olive) for $6, or made into open-faced sandwiches topped with lox, pastrami or poached egg, which sold for $10. There was even an oh-so-very-Californian vegetarian option featuring crispy kale, avocado and caramelized onion slaw. Not surprisingly, the everything bagels topped with plain cream cheese were the first items to sell out.
But the usual overly hyped pop-up snafus ensued. Rowe estimates that approximately four times as many people showed up than there were bagels. The bagels were technically sold out by noon, but it still took another hour to serve them. The long lines and slow service garnered criticism from everyone from anti-gentrification activists who railed against the “yuppie bread lines” to incredulous New Yorkers who were quick to point out that the venerated Lower East Side smoked fish emporium doesn’t even bake their own bagels, but rather buys them from a bakery in New Jersey. None of that seemed to dissuade die-hards like the San Jose couple who breathlessly posted their arrival on the Facebook page as they were driving up from the Peninsula to get into the queue.
Haines had originally intended to import Ess-A-Bagels with the help of a Task Rabbit, but discovered the costs of going through a middleman were less than optimal, and she worried about quality assurances with a stranger responsible for shipping the product. Ultimately she decided to go with Russ & Daughters, because they already had an established overnight shipping service. It didn’t hurt that they have a great brand.
Is the state of bagels in San Francisco really so bad that only a past-its-expiration-date one from New York will do? In a word, “yes,” says Evan Bloom of Wise Son’s Jewish Delicatessen, who hawks housemade brisket, babka and bialys at his three San Francisco locations including one at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. “If there was a great bagel to be had in San Francisco, I’d be selling it.” Bloom blames the proliferation of franchises like Noah’s for popularizing the big, sweet doughy specimens that pass as bagels in the Bay. “There needs to be the right amount of chew to work your jaw.” After extensive reconnaissance, Bloom discovered 90% of the local bagel purveyors simply buy pre-made dough and steam it, rather than boil the bagels in water, like they do in New York. A few local bakeries, such as Marla’s and 20th Century Café, bake their own but they’re fairly small. The notable exception is Miller’s East Coast Deli, which actually flies in bagels that are boiled and partially baked in New York and then finishes them off in their ovens in San Francisco.
Bloom eventually settled on sourcing from Beauty’s, a bakery and appetizing shop in Oakland that turns out Montreal-style bagels “as good as anything you’re going to find out here.” But due to the relatively high cost and delivery logistics (the bagels are driven over in the morning while they’re still warm), Wise Sons only offers bagels on Sundays and Bloom only orders a limited amount; he doesn’t want to end up with leftovers because he’d never dream of selling a day-old bagel. “A good bagel lasts four to eight hours tops. It’s fine to slice and toast it the next day, but it loses something.”
Despite the hiccups and backlash, Eastside Bagels will be back. The next pop-up is slated for March 15th from 11:30am to 3pm at Dear Mom, but there will be significant changes. Rowe and Haines are increasing the supply slightly (14 dozen), but will offer a pared-down menu — just bagels with a choice of schmears or lox — and plan to hire an extra cook so they can “serve as many people as possible within the physical constraints of our space without pissing people off.”
We’re guessing the crowds will be back too. Including Tiff Ting, who despite waiting an hour in the rain and then another inside before discovering that the kitchen had run out of plain cream cheese, tells the Forward, “I would think about going back if they did it again with improved logistics since there are not many good bagel options in SF right now.”
Ironically, getting a good New York bagel in San Francisco may be harder than ever. The duo is tight-lipped about where they’re getting their next batch from, and not just because they’re being coy. Despite being above board with Russ & Daughters about their plans, the shop was said to have been unhappy with what they thought was Eastside’s unauthorized use of their brand, which may or may not have something to do with the fact that Russ & Daughters has since doubled their shipping costs. Haines confesses that since the brouhaha, it’s been tough to find a New York bakery that is willing to ship bagels to her. “I’ve reached out to a dozen different shops via email and phone, and I haven’t gotten any response yet.”
The self-described “bi-coastal bagel logistic expert” is a bit heartbroken about the way the pop-up was received. “I had no idea how rapidly the response to this idea would change for the worse. I’m not some money-hungry entrepreneur trying to make a ton of money off the tech crowd, as some of the media reports seem to suggest. I got into this to have fun and break even. I’m just trying to bring something to San Francisco that there’s a demand for.” The fact that that so many people showed up proves to Haines that her subscription model has legs. “Some think the novelty of a New York bagel will diminish over time. But I’m not going to back down. I’ll keep doing it and see how it pans out. But first I need to figure out how to acquire the bagels. By March 15th, we’ll have something figured out. I’ll get on a plane and bring them back by myself if I have to.”