Food & Travel | Food & Travel

Any way you slice it, N.Y. bagel business is going strong

By Jessica Pilot
Globe Correspondent / August 13, 2008

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NEW YORK - Along with pizza, any New Yorker knows that bagels are part of the lifeblood of the city. Visitors who eat a bagel here may know why folks are so particular about them. Traditional bagels are crusty on the outside, and when you bite into them, the tender interior is soft and fluffy. They measure about 4 1/2 inches wide and are 3 inches tall. A bagel eaten plain is just as satisfying as one devoured with "the works" (cream cheese, assorted fish and poultry spreads, lox).

Various phases of the no-carb, low-carb diet have disrupted the bagel business here, but bagel makers bounce back and so do bagel buyers. There's that moment, dashing to work, when a bagel will offer just the right amount of nourishment before a morning meeting. And then there are Sundays, when delicatessens offering bagels are filled with customers. Today's bagel eater has more choices than ever. There are low-carb bagels, whole wheat bagels, and the relatively recent "scooped" bagel, in which the insides are tossed out so only the crusty exterior remains.

On any weekend morning, you'll see lines of people waiting to order fresh bagels and the trimmings. H&H Bagels, on the West Side, will not cut, toast, or spread bagels with condiments. The 35-year-old company also has a plant, where bagels are made for many delicatessens and shops; they introduced online ordering three years ago. Sales manager Norman Levy says that H&H Bagels are "boiled and baked, and although there are carbs, the bagels contain no cholesterol or trans fat."

Typically, bagels are made with all-purpose flour, but Adam Pomerant, owner of Murray's Bagels in Greenwich Village, has seen a 20 percent increase in whole wheat and multigrain bagels, both introduced in 1999. Pomerant has also noticed many requests for scooped bagels. Customers typically want the resulting hollow bagel toasted, so that any dough that's left inside the bagel is crisp throughout. Scooping means that the bagel eater doesn't waste calories or carbs on the doughy center.

When Ess-a-Bagel opened 32 years ago in Gramercy Park, the Atkins low-carb diet was at its height, so the shop decided to make low-carb bagels. Florence Wilpon, the store's owner, says that through the years, sales on low-carb rounds have remained steady. They also get many scooped requests.

The Atkins diet had the same effect on Russ & Daughters, established in 1914. Fourth-generation owner Joshua Russ says that the diet made deep cuts in their business. With scooped and whole wheat bagels, however, their numbers are up again, says Russ. "We do have more people who request for the inside of their bagels to be scooped out or ask if we can order more whole wheat [bagels]," says Russ. "Ever since we started selling them, they have been in demand."

On the Upper West Side, Zabar's, established in 1934, is a landmark, where more than 3,000 rounds are sold each week, about a quarter of those on the weekends, says Saul Zabar, co-owner with his brother, Stanley. The most popular bagel is plain, packaged with smoked salmon and cream cheese. Though the store offers spreads, or "schmear" (the Yiddish term used to describe cream cheese) customers must dolly up their own bagels.

But not every diner goes for plain. At The Bagel Store in Brooklyn's Williamsburg, there are French toast bagels, apple bagels, and pumpkin pie bagels.

This week in Beijing, visitors from New York who are longing for their daily fix can find bagels. The China Daily newspaper reports that an assortment of the best bagels can be found in the center of the city, served with fillings like turkey and honey mustard. They also offer schmear - if you like yours made with wasabi.