It’s six a.m. and there’s no music playing in the kitchen this morning, but there is nevertheless a certain dance to behold between Isaac Henrion and his clocked-in baker, Leah Fiacco, who have been working since four a.m. and have exactly three more hours to boil, seed, and bake 1,200 rings of dough without ramming each other with hot sheet pans or slipping on sesame seeds, which coat the floor in a perpetual booby trap.
Indeed, bagel-making is a ballet of sorts: an art form with little room for error but endless room for expression. Making bagels demands equal doses of precision and vision.
It’s a sensible niche for Henrion, a British ex-pat who spent years working as a computer scientist before a series of pandemic-era pivots led him to the food industry. In the kitchen, he ties his hair back with a butterfly-spotted bandana, chatters about hydration levels and protein percentages, and whirls between ovens with the buoyancy of a man who has figured out how to reach through the computer screen, Wonkavision style, and hold the product of his calculations in his hands.
Soon enough, Henrion, 30, will be dancing on his own stage. Isaac’s Bagels—a business he launched two years ago that has slowly accrued a cult following and currently operates out of a commissary kitchen—is set to open as a brick-and-mortar shop on West Chapel Hill Street in Durham this fall.
For now, though, the production is limited to the commissary space, where Henrion and his team bake seven varieties of bagels each week to distribute at the Durham Co-op, Jewish for Good, and the Durham Farmers’ Market.
This morning’s batch began two days earlier, on Thursday, with the mixing and shaping of the dough. Forty-eight hours later, after the dough rings have puffed up like little inner tubes, they get boiled in a large pot—a “cauldron,” as Henrion calls it—before being dunked in seeds, placed on pans, and pushed into the oven.
The ovens have hot and cold spots, so Henrion rearranges the bagels every few minutes to ensure an even bake. It’s sort of like watching a card dealer perform an elaborate game of three-card monte.
After the bagels have cooked and cooled, he sorts out the clunkers.
“If they’ve got no belly button and they’re a baseball, they’re not making it,” he says, lobbing an onion bagel into a tub of bulbous rejects. He pauses for a second.
“The sad thump of failure.”
On Instagram and TikTok, Henrion continues, there’s a recent trend among bagel shops called the “knock test,” where a person is shown rapping their knuckles on a bagel, listening for a hollow sound (which indicates doneness), and subsequently ripping the bagel apart with the exerted theatrics one might display while halving a phone book.
Henrion describes the practice as largely unnecessary and “a little macho.”
As far as bagels go, he says, fine feathers make fine birds.
“You want to look for the visual indicators—microblisters, a shimmery crust, a bit of color.” He picks up a poppy-seed bagel. “Slightly blue,” he observes. “It’s the most beautiful thing.”
Production wraps up around nine a.m. It’s time to head to the farmers’ market. Henrion gives the kitchen a final once-over.
“There’s lots of seeds on the floor,” he says. “That’s part of life.”
Henrion started tinkering with bagel recipes in 2020, several months after he dropped out of a PhD program in New York City and moved to Durham with his partner, Karly, who had enrolled in a PhD program at Duke. He’d been laid off from his barista job at the onset of the pandemic, around the time that many people, bored at home, developed a sudden interest in baking. Henrion, who missed New York bagels, jumped on the bandwagon.
Bagels aren’t just any bread, though. Months later, when other hobbyists were conquering—and growing tired of—sourdough and brioche and focaccia, Henrion still had yet to produce a satisfactory bagel. He plowed ahead, making spreadsheets to map out variables like humidity and fermentation time.
His bagels began to improve, enough to the point where he could share them with friends, who then urged him to start selling them to the public. He threw together a website and began distributing pick-up orders at the community garden down the street from his house.
“For the first few weeks, it was just people from the neighborhood,” Henrion says. “And then I started seeing people who I didn’t know—people from other neighborhoods. You sort of realize: if we can scale this up and get better at what we’re doing, maybe we can have a viable business.”
In the months that followed, traffic continued to accelerate. Henrion started offering delivery service.
Besides the obvious Bruegger’s, Durham only has one dedicated bagel shop: Everything Bagels, in the Durham Food Hall. Isaac’s Bagels was filling a glaring gap in the market.
An outpouring of community support enabled Henrion to keep pace with the growing demand.
When the operation became too large for Henrion’s kitchen, Larry Greenblatt, a doctor whom Henrion befriended while volunteering for Greenblatt’s mask distribution initiative in the early pandemic days, offered his own spacious kitchen as an alternative. (A particularly generous proposition, given the early hours that Henrion’s baking process would begin on Saturdays.)
The offers kept coming. In late 2021, the owners of Ideal’s Sandwich and Grocery hosted an Isaac’s Bagels pop-up. A bagel residency at Queeny’s came soon after.
“Isaac was very impressively committed to growing his business,” says Michelle Vanderwalker, who co-owns Queeny’s, “to finding the right next step, and to doing it well.”
Support from Vanderwalker, and from other local restaurateurs, extended beyond pop-up opportunities, Henrion says. On a Friday night last October, Hurricane Ian knocked out power in the commissary kitchen, leaving Henrion with 2,000 dough rings and no refrigeration. He sent out a plea to Queeny’s and Ninth Street Bakery at 1:30 a.m., asking if he and his employees—who, notably, also responded to Henrion’s middle-of-the-night phone call—could use their kitchens to bake. Both said yes.
Henrion, who didn’t have commercial kitchen or entrepreneurship experience prior to launching Isaac’s Bagels, has also worked to gain industry knowledge from his network of Durham restaurant friends.
“He asked great questions of us,” Vanderwalker says.
Paul Chirico, who co-owns Ideal’s, says that Henrion is cut out for the industry.
“He hasn’t really worked in kitchens,” says Chirico, a New York City native. “But he’s perfect for it. He’s always trying to get better. Trying to improve. That’s what you need to be successful.”
And Henrion isn’t seeking advice from just other business owners. Since the inception of his business, Henrion has placed an extraordinary emphasis on customer input, according to Greenblatt.
“He would have people fill out a form and rate all the characteristics of the bagels,” Greenblatt says. “‘Is it the right texture? Is it chewy enough? What about the size? Is it too salty, or not salty enough?’ He did this iteration after iteration until he got the bagels where he wanted them to be.”
If Henrion wasn’t so serious about his craft, it could be the setup to a joke: A former computer scientist wants to open a bagel business in a town he just moved to. What route would he take, if not the scientific method? What kind of bagel scientist would he be if his product weren’t peer-reviewed?
When the brick-and-mortar location of Isaac’s Bagels opens in the fall, service will be takeout only. Henrion says he envisions the shop as a place where students and workers can grab a sandwich and a coffee on their way to school or work, the way he did when he lived in New York.
“I’m sure there’ll be some moments of invention and creativity,” Henrion says. “But we’re planning to be relatively traditional.”
Beyond a selection of bagels and cream cheeses, the menu will include hot and cold bagel sandwiches; deli staples, like whitefish salad, egg salad, and lox; and a mix of pastries and sweets.
The future Isaac’s Bagels space is just two blocks away from the community garden where Henrion got his start. It’s a nice touch of poetry—the bagel maker coming full circle.
Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this story at email@example.com.
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