I am a bagel snob, an East Coast transplant convinced that bigger is not better, appalled by the addition of jalapeños or chocolate chips. I forgo those plastic-wrapped bagels found next to the English muffins and scoff at hungry hordes who kvell over steam-injected, oversize orbs molten with mozzarella.
Like “real bagel” lovers everywhere, I’m forever in search of my hole-y grail, a robust round of modest proportion, built with flour, water, salt, and yeast, boiled then baked — on wooden planks — to a satisfying sheen: in other words, the comfort-food construct of my childhood, the bagel that graced our table from bris to shiva.
Local Jews — and like-minded gentiles — still get teary-eyed remembering Brenner Brothers Bakery, New York Bagel Boys, and Blazing Bagels back before those names, baked and bagged by familiar faces, sold to corporate outfits and became supermarket staples.
The 1990s proved to be a bagel boom nationwide, and Seattle was not untouched. Allan Thorne, who purchased Seattle Bagel Bakery in 1992, cites the push for automation by machinery manufacturers who turned the art of bagel making into a science, starting with Lender’s in the 1970s. What was for decades a Jewish “ethnic” food went mainstream in the late ’80s, with commodification bringing a big boost to the ’90s bagel-shop boom and — Thorne laughs — its eventual bust.
Thorne watched SPoT Bagel Bakery and its voracious rival, Noah’s, rise and compete. By the late ’90s, however, the bagel bubble had burst. Brands (Einstein/Noah among them) had flooded the market, and demand was falling.
Seattle Bagel Bakery was one of the lucky ones. “When SPoT went under, that’s when the farm was saved,” says Thorne, recalling the uptick in his wholesale trade when the business shuttered in 2000. “There was us and Bagel Oasis,” a Ravenna neighborhood fixture since 1988.
Keeping careful watch on the industry is AJ Ghambari, who today owns Seattle Bagel Bakery, a 15,000-square-foot production facility in Tukwila that cranks out and delivers as many as 30,000 bagels daily. Ghambari cites the natural causes of the more recent deaths of long-lived independents like Capitol Hill’s Bagel Deli and West Seattle’s Zatz a Better Bagel. Rising rents. Labor costs. Parking woes. Obsolete equipment.
But what really killed off the small guys, he insists, is the “old-school business model. Mixing dough, forming dough” then boiling and baking in-house. Why waste time, space, and resources, Ghambari asks, when outfits like his can mix, form, refrigerate, boil, and bake, delivering fresh or par-baked product to cafés, corporations, sandwich shops, and supermarkets? Although the bagel business has Jewish immigrant roots, notes Thorne, “like everything else, it’s become homogenized, corporatized. Nowadays, people are completely happy to buy a freezer bagel from Costco.”
Not my people.
For those of us whose taste memories are the standard by which we judge, there are too few places to assuage our old hunger for bagels made by hand and on premises. “I’m the last of the Mohicans,” says Peter Ryan, who was a Seattle newcomer like me when his Bagel Oasis opened its doors to a crowd nearly 30 years ago.
The best bagel? For Jews, especially those of us who used one for a teething ring, it’s a question that goes straight to the heart. “What’s that they say about Knesset?” asks Thorne. “That it has 120 seats — and 400 opinions.”