Big Apple transplants have long lamented that you can’t get a good bagel in the Bay Area. But no one expected the line of several hundred carb-craving hipsters who recently waited nearly two hours in the rain, hoping to sink their teeth into day-old bagels from Manhattan.
The breadline formed on February 8 outside a pop-up bagel cafe held at the Dear Mom bar in the Mission District. Now, San Francisco’s second bagel pop-up is set to take place March 15, when Eastside Bagels, a joint enterprise of marketing consultant Sonya Haines and chef Wes Rowe, makes its return appearance.
If it seems like a big marketing ploy, in a way it is. Haines isn’t a New Yorker, but she spent a few years living in New York, and, like many others, missed its bagels when she returned to San Francisco. Seeing an untapped business opportunity, she bought the domain name nycbagels.com and hatched the idea of launching a monthly mail-order service that San Franciscans can subscribe to in order to have a box of New York-baked bagels delivered to their homes via overnight transcontinental flights.
Haines banked on the assumption that San Franciscans would deem any New York bagel (even a day-old one) better than anything they could get locally. Rowe, whose culinary expertise she enlisted, sells his namesake burgers weekly out of a local bicycle cafe. Haines saw this as a way to create buzz about her bagel import service.
Word spread quickly through social media when the duo decided to test-drive their idea for a New York deli-inspired pop-up brunch. It didn’t hurt that Haines and Rowe disclosed that they had contracted with Russ & Daughters, a renowned and venerable Lower East Side smoked fish emporium, to supply the 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, lightly toasted to compensate for their lack of oven freshness, and slathered with a choice of cream cheeses (plain, charred scallions-garlic, jalapeno, olives), for $6, or made into open-faced sandwiches topped with lox, pastrami or a 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 four times as many people showed up than there were bagels. And even those lucky individuals who got served had to wait up to an hour for their orders. The long lines and slow service provoked everyone from anti-gentrification activists who railed against the “yuppie bread lines” to incredulous New Yorkers who were quick to point out that Russ & Daughters, while justly famous for its smoked fish, doesn’t even bake its own bagels — it buys them from a bakery in New Jersey.
Are indigenous San Francisco bagels really so bad that only a past-its-expiration-date bagel from New York will do? In a word, “yes,” said Evan Bloom of Wise Son’s Jewish Delicatessen. Bloom hawks house-made brisket, babka and bialys at his three San Francisco locations.
“If there was a great bagel to be had in San Francisco, I’d be selling it,” he said.
As things stand, Bloom offers his customers a limited number of fresh bagels available on Sundays only, sourced from Oakland-based Beauty’s, which turns out a Montreal-style bagel. Thanks to a slightly different preparation and baking process, these are smaller, denser and sweeter than their New York cousins. That’s “as good as anything you’re going to find out here,” Bloom said.
Bloom blames the proliferation of franchises like Noah’s for popularizing the big, sweet, doughy specimens that pass as bagels in the Bay. In a proper bagel, he explained, “there needs to be the right amount of chew to work your jaw.”
Given the response last time, Rowe and Haines are increasing the supply slightly for the return of their bagel pop-up. This time they will have 15 dozen bagels on hand but will offer a pared-down menu — just bagels with a choice of schmears or lox. They also plan to hire an extra cook so that they can “serve as many people as possible within the physical constraints of our space without pissing people off,” said Haines.
The duo is tight-lipped about where they’re getting their next batch from, and not just because they’re being coy. According to Haines, Russ & Daughters was unhappy with what it viewed as Eastside’s unauthorized use of its brand when it promoted its first pop-up.
That, and with the complaints about the long lines at the first bagel pop-up — and the subsequent negative press — have left Haines a bit heartbroken.
“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,” she said. “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.”
Meesha Halm is an author and freelance writer, and the local editor of the Zagat Bay Area Restaurant Guide. Contact Meesha Halm at firstname.lastname@example.org