What's Driving LA's Bagel Boom?
It's 1:00 p.m. on a Saturday, and Zach Liporace, owner of Pop's Bagels, is pulling rows of cinnamon raisin, everything and egg bagels from the oven. Smushed between a coffee stand and a grilled cheese stand, the pop-up has spent all morning catering to the throngs of Angelenos who have poured through the gates of Smorgasburg LA, one of Los Angeles' largest weekly outdoor food festivals.
Liporace launched his business in July 2017, and says that a place like Smorgasburg, which celebrates some of the city's best (and trendiest) gastronomical offerings, is the perfect way to introduce his product to new customers.
And with every batch, his business re-engages the ancient debate over the nature of a true bagel.
"I'm not offering bagels in a way that people are really used to," he says, by which he means that the goods he sells are always freshly baked. "I'm taking my time weaning people off the idea of, 'Can I get a dozen bagels?' I want them always to be hot and fresh."
Liporace isn't alone in looking for new ways to bring bagels to Southern California, nor is he alone in selling them only at festivals and pop-ups. Over the past few years, almost half a dozen bagel shops have opened in L.A., mostly in the prime hipster territory east of Vermont Street: Silver Lake, Echo Park and beyond, with names like Maury's, Belle's and Courage, and the obligatory pun on the side of a food truck: Yeastie Boys. Like Pop's, they aren't storefronts (with the excpetion of Belle's, which operates a food service window in front of a nightclub). They materialize at certain locations and certain times, using social media to announce their presence.
Until this recent bagel boom, there were between five and 10 reliable bagel shops in the city, depending on who you asked. In 2014, the Los Angeles Times identified seven such purveyors. Most were long-standing staples of the city's westside, where much of L.A.'s Orthodox Jewish population is concentrated. As the city continues to gentrify eastward, the number of bagel shops is creeping up. In 2018, Eater LA published a full-fledged map identifying "17 Supreme Destinations for Beautiful LA Bagels."
What makes these newer shops unique — in addition to their temporal status as pop-ups — is their commitment to the traditional bagel recipe. They're also taking advantage of social media to promote their product, even as they struggle to find permanent locations in neighborhoods where rents keep going up (who gentrifies the gentrifiers?).
Judging by the lines at many of these bagel pop-ups, they're doing well. But no good bagel goes unpunished, and new bagelers still have to respond to the age-old question: Can good bagels really be made and sold outside New York? And if so, will Los Angeles culture support them? It's a question that has divided the coastal bagel illuminati for years.
"New York is the home of certain ethnic foods, and there is, like, a bagel pride: If it's New York, it's gotta be great," says Marilyn Bagel (her real name), author of The Bagel Bible for Bagel Lovers and The Bagels' Bagel Book. "It's the gold standard, probably because that's kind of where they were born. Other cities' [bagelries] will call themselves 'authentic New York bagels.' It could be Podunk, Tennessee. But there is that mystique."
While researching her books, Bagel says she realized just how passionately people feel about this seemingly innocuous baked good.
"People don't feel neutral about bagels," she says. "People either love them in a particular and specific way, or they don't. It's a very passionate food, as far as how people feel about them. It's really quite something."
The exact beginnings of the modern-day bagel are uncertain, but most historians subscribe to one of two theories: That the toroid bread was invented in 14th-century Poland, courtesy of the influx of Germans who brought with them their recipe for large, hot pretzels; or that it has its roots in 17th-century Austria, when a grateful baker gifted the country's king with a horseshoe-shaped bread called a beugel (meaning stirrup) as a way of saying, "Thanks for saving us from the Turkish invaders."
The food became associated with Jewish culture when Jewish bakers in eastern Europe began selling bagels on the streets as a means of survival — and brought their creations with them when they emigrated to America at the turn of the 20th century. They landed, predominantly, in New York, and what happened next cemented the notion that the bagel was native to the city.
Soon after arriving on the island of Manhattan, bagel makers formed a union there called the Bagel Bakers Local 338. The organization was limited to 300 workers from 36 bakeries, and was reportedly extremely selective: New admissions were only granted to existing members' sons.
"Bagel Bakers Local 338 was very hard to get into," says Bagel. "One of the people I talked to [for my books] who was a bagel-shop owner back in the day said it was easier to get into medical school."
The union guarded its recipe fiercely. By some accounts, the Local 338 was a veritable Cosa Nostra with would-be interlopers. In a 1993 New York Times article, Atlanta's Royal Bagel owner Michael Yoss noted the possible consequences of playing fast and loose with bagel sales during that time.
"My father ran a bakery in Brooklyn, but he never made a bagel because he couldn't get into the union," Yoss told the paper. "They would have broken his legs if he made bagels without being in the union."
The Local 338 stayed intact until the 1960s, and may account, in part, for why the traditional bagel recipe didn't spread far beyond the tri-state area.
And yet, in the age-old debate about whether good bagels can be made outside the Big Apple, the union rarely gets a mention. Die-hard New York bagel aficionados might instead insist that there is just something intangibly special about the city — a magic je ne sais quoi that infuses itself into their beloved morning meal and sets it apart from the rest.
Among the more bookish, there exists a theory about the city's water; specifically, that it makes the bagels produced therein inimitable.
That theory is convenient for New York bakers — people in other parts of the U.S. probably can't afford to ship water from New York, so the bagel can't be replicated — but unfortunately, it's also been debunked.
The water in New York City comes primarily from the Catskill Mountains. It's soft water, meaning that it has low concentrations of calcium and magnesium. In a 2015 video, the American Chemical Society explained that this type of chemical make-up affects gluten in bread dough, causing it to be slightly mushier than areas that have harder water. But that's not what makes the difference between a good bagel and a not-so-good one. For experienced bakers, adjusting to slight chemical variations in water or elsewhere is par for the course.
"If the water is harder or softer, it might change how much flour you need," says Liporace. "But anything can be a factor in that. On a dry day, I might need less flour."
Rather, what makes a good, traditional bagel is a technique that's available to just about anyone who wants it badly enough. Bagels should be stored in a cold setting for several hours, and often overnight, and they should be kettle-boiled before baking, which is what gives them their signature chewy exterior.
"There is a certain texture that comes from the boiling and baking," says Bagel. "When you bite into a bagel, it shouldn't be the consistency of bread."
"The boiling process sets the bagel," adds Jason Kaplan, an L.A.-based chef and owner of the Silver Lake pop-up Maury's Bagels (Maury's has since opened up a storefront in the neighborhood). "It sets the shape of the bagel and defines the thickness of the crust and the exterior texture."
For that reason, bakers outside New York think the water theory doesn't...well, hold much water.
"It's very convenient to say you have to use New York water," says Kaplan. "There is no reason you can't make a good pizza, or good bagels, or good pasta anywhere you go."
"New York has great bagels," adds Liporace, "but they also have terrible bagels. They also have great pizza, and they have terrible pizza. To say that New York bagels are the best, I mean, it's just New York bias at its best."
With all that said, the final piece of the "why aren't there more good bagels outside New York?" puzzle is likely a logistical one: They're expensive and time-consuming to make. Cold storage and boiling necessitate specific equipment, and bagel dough requires a particularly strong mixer.
"Bagel is one of the biggest pain-in-the-ass breads there is," says Kaplan. "From forming the dough to shaping the dough to storing the dough to baking the dough, it's a very specific set of equipment that you aren't going to find at even a regular bakery that's doing a variety of other food."
Finding the space to accommodate all that apparatus is even more difficult in a major city. Commercial space in Silver Lake, for instance, rents for an average of $40 per square foot, with a great deal of fluctuation depending on the building's owner.
"You can find spaces, but you have to be able to accept the outrageous rates of landlords," Kaplan adds, "and you have to be able to afford bringing in electric or plumbing utilities and spending a year and a half waiting for all those different components to come together."
To bring their dreams to fruition, many pop-up bakers rent space in communal kitchens, making their bagels there before transporting them to a retail site.
This strategy, to the new guard, is preferable to the methods of companies that mass produce bagels. They typically cut corners by steaming their dough instead of kettle-boiling it. That has lead to a further divide between bagel customers who will accept such offerings, and those who won't.
The Los Angeles bagel boom is the result of a few elements — and they're less lurid than a baker's mafia and less metaphysical than holy water.
In neighborhoods where gentrification has taken hold, demand has sprung up and supply has risen to meet that demand. That demand has coincided with the trendiness of food trucks and pop-ups, which lower the massive costs of starting a food business. Social media helps budding food entrepreneurs get their product in front of hungry mouths. Pop-ups also allows chefs to build their brands and see if their recipes appeal to the masses, before they invest in a storefront.
"The pop-up is a way to get your idea out there and test it," says Kaplan. "You're getting a lot of the restaurant experience, so if it doesn't go your way, you can say, 'You know what? I think I'm going to sell real estate instead.'"
Back at Smorgasburg LA, Liporace is pulling the last of his bagels from the oven, serving them to the crowds who have braved the blistering afternoon. Liporace hopes to open a storefront one day. In the meantime, he'll continue to make bagels that are as good as the best of what you'll find on the other coast.
"If you were gonna give a headline about Pop's," he says, "it would be, 'The L.A. Bagel That Wants to Tell New York to Go F*$k Itself.'"