By the last available estimate, there are some 12,000 bodegas in New York City, nearly all of them independently owned and independently choosing their bagel suppliers. At the smaller end of the spectrum, they order about two dozen bagels, though busier ones buy more. That means that despite the bad rep of the bodega bagel — and its relative, the coffee cart bagel — something like 300,000 or more of them are purchased every single day.
It's not that stack of melted cheese, bacon, and eggs are covering up any lack of flavor in the bagel, either. After talking to many people in the business, they all say the hands-down most popular order is a plain bagel with plain cream cheese, a combination that practically celebrates the bagel. So how did the bodega bagel end up with such a tarnished reputation?
For one, some bodega bagels are not boiled. Traditionally, bagel connoisseurs say that the dough of a real New York City bagel must be boiled before it is baked. That's the technique that gives a bagel the slightly harder exterior and dense, chewy interior. But some manufacturers steam their bagels instead, making for a softer, slightly fluffier end product. As the old saying goes, a bagel that's not boiled is nothing but "a roll with a hole."
"They wanted something like a bagel that was more palatable to the local market, something between a bagel and a roll"
It's no accident that many coffee carts and bodegas offer steamed bagels. According to Long Island City bagel manufacturer New Yorker Bagels, not everyone understood what a bagel was when the product first boomed in popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s. "A lot of coffee carts and bodegas weren't accustomed to the hard, chewy shell and the chewy inside," says Stefanos Evangelinos, a partner in the company. "They wanted something like a bagel that was more palatable to the local market, something between a bagel and a roll." In addition to being a more approachable version of a bagel, the steamed version stays softer for longer, extending its shelf life. Demand for this entry-level bagel exploded and grew to 50 percent of their business in the early '90s, Evangelinos says.
Now, New Yorker Bagels sells more of its high end product, which are boiled with machinery that's custom-made to mimic the company's original 1981 recipe. Most of the 250,000 bagels made every day go to customers like Whole Foods, gourmet market chain Citarella, hotels, and Columbia University.
But the company still sells the steamed version to about 900 coffee carts and 900 bodegas daily, making up about 10 to 15 percent of business. The flour, dough, and quality control are all the same as the ones that go to Whole Foods. The bagels just go into a steaming oven instead. "It's kind of like boiling [versus] steaming your vegetables," Evangelinos says. "It's still broccoli. But one is boiled and one is steamed. It changes the way the product tastes."
Another wholesale manufacturer, Grimaldi's Bakery in Ridgewood, says its bodega and deli customers prefer the steamed bagels because they're better for sandwiches. Company marketing director John Quintero argues that's because the denser, boiled bagel doesn't hold contents like bacon, egg, and cheese well, while the steamed bagel keeps things in place. "It tends to not eject the contents onto your lap, in the interest of neatness and happy customers," Quintero says. "Customers don’t want their patrons to come back and say 'give me a dry cleaning bill for my lap.'"
The 100-plus-year-old company, which delivers to more than 1,500 bodegas, delis, and small coffee shops, calls its steaming process FSI, an acronym for Flash Steam Injection. As far as Quintero is concerned, FSI is just as good as kettle boiling a bagel, and the old "roll with a hole" quip is dead. "Over the last 20 years or so, the kettle bagels have not gotten any better," he says. "The FSI process has gotten a lot better, so much so that most people can't tell the difference today." The proof is in the sales, he adds. Grimaldi's, which also sells breads and rolls, sells about 24,000 of these FSI-created bagels a day, mostly in Brooklyn.
Unlike Grimaldi's, Evangelinos and Steve Megenatos, partners in New Yorker Bagels, think that the best bagels are boiled. That doesn't mean they dislike their steamed ones, though. "We chose to make a hybrid product, to give people a stepping stone into great bagels," Evangelinos says. And some bodegas do step up in quality, particularly when a neighborhood's changing demographic has different tastes. For example, all the company's Williamsburg customers bought steamed bagels ten years ago. Now, most of them buy boiled. "We let them come around to it when they have a demand for it," Evangelinos says.
Many bodegas do opt for a boiled bagel, something the discerning bagel eater can check by looking for a darker bottom. Still, even if a bagel is boiled, a mass manufactured bagel may have a different taste and texture than the one from your favorite bagel shop due to shelf life concerns. Cliff Nordquist, owner of Bronx wholesaler Just Bagels, sells to hundreds of bodegas and grocers in the city, including Morton Williams, and the company boils its bagels before baking. In order to give the bagels a longer shelf life, Just Bagels bakes them for just nine minutes instead of 15, Nordquist says. The method keeps the bagel viable for longer, making it last through the day in a bread case.
One wholesaler insists that his bagel will taste similar to a specialty store's — after it's toasted.
Bagels made from a wholesaler also tend to look different, Nordquist adds, which perhaps adds to the maligned reputation of bodega bagels. Baking in a traditional revolving oven will give a bagel a more old-fashioned look, with seeds on both sides, while mass bagels may only have seeds on top because they're cooked on a belt. Despite differences, Nordquist insists that his bagels will taste similar to a bagel from a local specialty store once it's reheated. "The look of [a smaller batch bagel], you can't match, because you need it to last," he says. "They're really meant to be finished off, whether it's in a toaster or heated up. Then, most people would say 'wow.'"
Not all wholesale bagels are created equal. Davidovich Bakery, which supplies to icons like Zabar's and Barney Greengrass, claims to be one of the only wholesalers to kettle boil its bagels, meaning people — and not machines — watch the dough as it drops in the water during the boiling process. "This is partly why our more mass-produced product tastes like those made in the small bagel shops of old," says Marc Fintz, who does marketing at Davidovich. These labor-intensive bagels can be found in bodegas and small delis, though often without a label. New Yorker Bagels also sells to higher-end markets, meaning the bodega you buy your bacon, egg, and cheese from while hungover could be selling the same bagels as Whole Foods.
The problem is that each individual bodega is different. That dirty corner bodega could potentially be selling a pretty decent bagel, while a renovated store may be offering a lesser one. But bodegas and delis almost uniformly forgo labeling the source of their bagels, which lumps bad bagels, good bagels, and all the ones in-between into one mushy category of New York food.
Still, despite the pride every wholesaler takes in their product, nobody seems to be in a rush to label their bagels — whether to stand out in the crowd or to disassociate from the stereotype. Some say they don't want to push their clients to make changes, while others simply didn't see the need. While they agreed that many bodega bagels are bad, they argued that if a bodega is buying their bagel, then it must not be fitting the stereotype.
Even Davidovich, one of the more visible wholesalers, says being available in bodegas doesn't harm the brand's overall reputation, according to Fintz. In fact, carrying Davidovich elevates the bodega's reputation, rather than a bodega bringing Davidovich's brand down, he adds. "I'm a believer that our product could fit for anybody at any level," Fintz says.
It's also possible that for many people, bodega bagels are actually pretty good, just the way they are. Take this New Yorker Bagels experiment, for example: Two years ago, New Yorker Bagels tried to label their products to increase visibility. The problem was, Evangelinos and Megenatos didn't want to put their label on the steamed bagels, which they considered to be a lesser product. So they performed an experiment. They gave their boiled bagels to about 100 coffee carts for free, hoping that they would upgrade. They predicted the first month would be tough, but they were sure that with a little bit of education, people would ultimately fall for a real New York City bagel. "We know we can make the greatest bagel on the market," Evangelinos says. "Our premium product beats everybody. But not a lot of people know about it."
The coffee cart guys said, "I don't need to deal with bagel snobs."
They were wrong. Coffee cart customers hated having a boiled bagel. "It was almost mutiny," Evangelinos says. They complained that they weren't as soft, weren't as puffy, weren't as big, Meganatos says. They complained the bagel was getting hard too quickly. They complained that it was too small to load up as much cream cheese as customers wanted. Two months later, every single cart requested to go back to steamed bagels. "The coffee cart guys said, 'I don't need to deal with bagel snobs'," Evangelinos says. "'Stop telling me it's better, my customers are getting angry at me'."
Plus, with so many bodegas selling out of their bagels every day, it doesn't make sense for them to change, they say. "People are not expecting a top notch bagel," says Paul Shah, owner of East Village Grocery. "Just an acceptable bagel. They meet the demand." And if a wholesaler needed to change the product, they would, Quintero of Grimaldi's says. "Success is in the selling," Quintero says. "If the product beats the test of the marketplace, then you got it right."
Eater can only reasonably account for the bagel suppliers of a few thousand bodegas. That leaves many thousands of other bodegas whose bagel bakeries remain a mystery. So before you completely dismiss your local bodega as a source for a terrible bagel, look again. Ask where it's from. Then take a moment, sit down, and really think about that bagel as you eat it. Maybe you'll appreciate that the softer texture holds in the sandwich well, or maybe it will be chewier than you expected. Think past the reputation you've come to know, and you might find that the bodega bagel is not so bad after all.