How We Started a Bagel Company in San Francisco, Part 1
Somewhat improbably, I've started a bagel company in San Francisco. Some of the time it doesn't feel like a real company, because it's me, my wife, and another couple that we've known since college. Except, then I find myself up at 5 a.m. getting ready to bake, or showing up at an event* where people line up to buy what we've baked while we stand there in t-shirts emblazoned with the company logo. In a more surreal touch, we've even had the press write some really nice things about us—and, well, that's usually my job here at Serious Eats.
The idea to make bagels came from Dan, who had heard enough of me—and other transplanted New Yorkers—complaining about the lack of good bagels in the Bay Area that he decided we'd be the ones to remedy the problem. It was a silly notion. None of us are trained bakers. Which may explain why we made some monumentally bad bagels along the way.
*We currently run our business as a pop-up, meaning we don't have a retail location, and instead bake our bagels in a commercial kitchen before showing up as guests at other establishments to sell.
The Internet Does Not Make You an Expert
Had we been smart, we would have thrown ourselves at the feet of an experienced bagel-maker and begged to work as slave laborers. But like any good children of the Internet age, we assumed that Google could make up for the fact that our technical knowledge-base was more or less zero. The two years it took us to develop our recipe indicates that this assumption was wrong.
Google delivered us the basics of bagel making—malt in the dough, boiled in water that contains an alkali before they're baked—but if it were that easy, more shops would turn out good bagels. Our first recipe came from a blog Dan had found on the Internet. It seemed well-researched, so we tried it.
Wow, those bagels were awful! Shiny on the exterior, with a puffy interior that tasted like white bread or a dinner roll instead of a bagel, they disappointed on every level.
But Sometimes It Can Connect You With Experts
Though Dan had been the impetus behind our bagel project, our bagel ideal came from my childhood memories. Those early bagels we produced horrified me in particular because they seemed so far from the malty, chewy bagels I'd grown up eating at The Bagel Hole in Brooklyn (a shop, coincidentally, that won the Serious Eats bagel-off a few years back).
A middle school classmate of mine had worked behind the counter there, but I'd be so intent on ripping into a fresh bagel as soon as they'd been handed across the counter that I'd barely spare a moment to say hello, and... Holy sh-t! I knew someone who'd worked at the shop we were trying to emulate.
Truthfully, when I found Yasir on Facebook, he didn't have earth-shattering wisdom for us. He didn't know their recipe. But he mentioned that The Bagel Hole would give their dough a cold proof in the fridge. It was a simple piece of advice that any experienced baker might have passed along, but it was news to our bunch of newbies. It made a big difference.
Now, at least, our bagels finally tasted like something.
Being Organized is Underrated
From this point forward, we tried to run our test batches like scientists, carefully controlling for tweaks to each component in the process—malt, salt, yeast, flour type, boiling time—so we could see the effect.
If only we'd been a little more organized. Whole baking sessions went for naught because we couldn't remember which side of the oven had gotten the slightly yeastier batch, or because batches with different boiling times got tossed together on the same cooling rack. The process handily earned us the name we ultimately chose for our company, Schmendricks, Yiddish for fools or nincompoops. Finishing a baking session with oven burns on our arms or a sore neck from kneading dough could be pretty frustrating when the effort felt essentially wasted.
Somewhere along the way, we all moved into the same apartment building (though not the same apartment... we're not that close), and this fact probably saved us from aborting our haphazard attempt at perfecting our recipe. Instead of traveling across town to sample test bagels, we only had to go up and down a flight of stairs.
We practically wore a hole in the carpet on those stairs. Solving one problem often meant creating another. Bagels that tasted flavorful enough would suddenly develop awful blisters ("Our bagels have warts!" we'd exclaim). Or, sometimes, we lost sight of what we wanted. Halfway through the process we decided that the dough we'd thought we liked had crossed over to becoming a touch too dense (anyone want a dog chew?) and we had to figure out how to back away from this without returning to the awful, puffy rolls we'd baked in that ill-fated first attempt.
Over two years after the first batch came out of the oven, luck and persistence collided to produce a bagel recipe that made us happy. One bite sent me sprinting downstairs to show off the bagel that had just come out of the oven. It tasted... right.
That final product had a crisp crust around the browned exterior that gave way to a chewy, malty, lightly salty interior. It didn't taste like bread, it tasted like bagel. Sliced open a few minutes after it had come out of the oven, it didn't need anything other than a bit of butter to make a wholly satisfying meal. This we could sell.
So, can four schmos with little baking experience figure out how to make a really good bagel? Well, yes. But I don't suggest doing it the way we did.
In the meantime, we were just barely preparing to make a host of new mistakes as we scaled up to a commercial kitchen. But that's a topic for another post.
David Kover is one of Serious Eats' San Francisco contributors. Along with his wife and two friends, he founded Schmendricks, a San Francisco company that bakes New York-style bagels. Schmendricks operates as a pop-up vendor, selling their bagels all over town, most often to long lines of transplanted New Yorkers desperate for a real bagel. Follow them on Twitter as @Schmendricks.