If the sourdough-baking craze that ensued during the coronavirus pandemic is any indication, then people are finding solace in making and eating elemental carbs. While baking bread has enabled home cooks to witness the magical alchemy of flour and water, it’s also helped them appreciate the labor, time, and care that go into making food from scratch.
That difficulty is why we’re not about to suggest that you start rolling your own bagels.
Luckily, three locals have decided to take their bagel-making game from their home kitchens to their own shops. From New York-style bagels to avant-garde bagel sandwiches to top-notch bagels from a master pie-maker, they all deliver equal parts sustenance and comfort.
When Alex Brandwein was growing up in Westchester, New York, eating bagels was a daily occurrence.
“Bagels were just this good feeling,” Brandwein says. “There was something about when someone came through the door with a bag of bagels that just sort of calmed everything down.”
But when he moved to Chapel Hill to pursue an MBA at UNC’s business school, Brandwein was shocked to find that no downtown bagel shop existed. When he returned to New York for Thanksgiving break in 2018, he made bagels using a pre-made mix, even though he couldn’t boil water. The saying is truer than usual for Brandwein, who once grabbed a tea kettle when his mother asked him to put on water to boil pasta.
Back in Chapel Hill, Brandwein began developing his recipe and technique (he’s got the burn marks on his forearms to prove it), making bagels at home to share with his MBA classmates in exchange for feedback before moving his operation to a commercial kitchen on West Rosemary Street. His formula, with local Lindley Mills flour and barley malt syrup, exemplifies a New York-style bagel: a thin, shiny exterior and an airy-yet-chewy interior.
After Brandwein completed a summer internship at a bagel shop and finalized his business plan, Brandwein’s Bagels held its first pop-up in August 2019, selling out of 680 plain, sesame, and everything bagels in a few hours. In early 2020, he signed a lease for the commercial-kitchen-turned-storefront and launched a weekly online bagel-delivery service called “Saturdays Are for Bagels,” which sold out of 1,200 bagels the first time.
“People like bagels, but the whole thing for me is more than that,” Brandwein says. “The bagels are a vehicle for what we are providing, which is a good feeling that comes with it.”
Brandwein’s Bagels opened on August 7 with outdoor seating, serving New York-style bagels, cream cheese, and sandwiches like lox-and-cream cheese featuring ACME smoked salmon.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Everything Bagels, a bagel shop serving “avant-garde bagel creations” that opened in May inside the Durham Food Hall. When owner Jen Kremer and her husband moved to the Triangle from Philadelphia, they missed bagels, too. Kremer, who still owns a bakery there called Sweet Freedom, also missed baking. Two years ago, she started tinkering with a bagel recipe at home.
“I’m a chef, so I can’t just make a bagel. I have to make it the bagel,” Kremer says. “And I want to be as crazy and funky as I can be but still not turn people off.”
Bagel flavors like togarashi sesame and seaweed everything highlight her creative flair, but her out-of-the-box approach is also influenced by Sweet Freedom’s mission to cater to various dietary restrictions. Though Kremer admits that Everything Bagels is a more “gluttonous and glutinous” venture, it was important to her to offer vegan and vegetarian options.
As with fashion design, avant-garde creations can be polarizing. Kremer has been pleasantly surprised by how Durhamites have embraced the more “out-there” sandwiches, which have been further enhanced by chef Ray Williams (previously of the Durham Hotel). The best-selling Philly Style Tempeh features marinated local tempeh, broccoli rabe, Calabrian chilies, and cauliflower toum, a garlicky whipped cauliflower spread that stands in for Provolone.
Another Durham shop that’s slinging bagels isn’t new, per se. Though Ali Rudel is best known for her seasonal pies at East Durham Bake Shop, which she co-owns with her husband, Ben Filippo, she’s also got a deft touch with bagels.
“We didn’t feel we could get a solid New York-style, super chewy bagel nearby, so we used to make them ourselves,” Rudel says of the bagels she made at home for her family.
Earlier this year, Filippo jokingly suggested celebrating his birthday with a bagel pop-up at the bakery. It ended up happening, coinciding with National Bagel Day on January 15, no less. It was so successful that they decided to launch Bagel Wednesdays at East Durham Bake Shop.
“I spent a long time developing the recipe. I got a lot of input from diehard bagel enthusiasts before launching,” Rudel says.
Rudel and her team continued making bagels in small batches—six at a time—until demand started outpacing production, just after COVID-19 hit. Rudel had already launched Club Sandwich, a membership program to raise funds for an expansion. Some of those funds went toward equipment to scale bagel production, including a water boiler that yields 60 bagels per batch.
Bagels are now a permanent menu fixture and can be pre-ordered online or purchased at the Durham Farmers’ Market. The regular lineup includes plain, everything, salt, sesame, and poppyseed; cream cheese flavors such as olive or Sun Gold tomato; and bagel sandwiches, which are overseen by chef Chris McLaurin (previously of LaPlace and Picnic) and include weekly specials named after employees.
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